March 21, 2013
By Michele LeVoy
Tackling poverty and social exclusion is now one of the core objectives of the EU’s Europe 2020 Strategy with the aim of reducing poverty and social exclusion across the EU by at least 20 million by 2020. To reach this goal, the EU needs to act quickly as the number of children in the European Union who are at risk of poverty or social exclusion currently stands at 25 million – one child out of four. This is an unacceptably high number for a union of states who are all signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and which emphasizes its foundations in fundamental rights and a model of social inclusion.
A particular concern is the situation of undocumented migrant children, as they face multiple vulnerabilities: as migrants, undocumented, and as children. Due to their irregular residence status, or the irregular status of their parents, many children face severe restrictions in accessing essential services, such as education and health care, and are at risk of poverty, social exclusion, exploitation and violence.
The European Commission’s Recommendation “Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage”, adopted on 20 February 2013 as part of a new European Social Investment Package, makes a very welcome, if limited recognition of these issues. The Recommendation sets out principles to guide the policy-making of member states, including the development of integrated strategies based on three key pillars: Access to adequate resources, access to affordable quality services and children’s right to participate. The second key pillar calls for particular attention to be given to the needs and rights of undocumented children to access their universal right to health care.
Access to health care services for undocumented children varies widely amongst EU member states. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has found that while there are a small minority of countries that allow undocumented children to access the same health care services as national children, they enjoy limited access in most member states, and only emergency care in others. This clearly violates the human right to healthcare and the impact of poor health on the well-being and development of children cannot be under-estimated.
However, access to health care is just one pressing issue for undocumented children, who also face limited access to education and training, adequate housing and socio-economic protection. The European Union institutions and member states must recognise that the increasing reality of children migrating with their families or being born in Europe to migrant parents means that public and social policies must address the needs of migrant children, documented or not. For the ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ coveted in the EU2020 Strategy, all children need to be fully included in educational and training programmes and school-based measures to support children’s school attendance, health and well-being,. .
This also means that a clear separation between service provision and immigration enforcement is essential, for all children to be able to go to school, receive health care, and report abuse, without potentially leading to detention, deportation or family separation. These recommendations are in line with recently published reports by the FRA and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Lack of data also remains an issue for monitoring the reality of undocumented migrant children, particularly those who are living with their parents or other caregivers, and so not in the care of the state. These children are hugely undercounted in national and local statistics and data systems that form the basis of immigration, public and social policy development. One example is Nordic member states such as Sweden and Denmark, which usually show very good results for low child poverty, based on available data, but at the same time, provide some of the least level of access to social services to undocumented migrant children in the EU. Sweden has recently begun to reform its policies and introduce measures to allow undocumented children to attend school and access publicly subsidized health care services, but much still remains to be done. The Recommendation calls for making full use of existing data and for improving the timeliness of data availability. But to have a better understanding of the impacts of all relevant policies on undocumented children and households, data collection must be expanded to include undocumented children, but should also not be used for immigration control purposes.
The case for prioritising social investment in children, particularly in times of crisis, is being made and is convincing. Poverty and social exclusion during childhood can have serious short and long-term consequences, including reducing the social and economic contributions young people make to their societies in the future. It is crucial to recognize that these arguments apply equally to all children, regardless of their or their parents’ migration status. Limiting the human rights of undocumented children and denying access to essential services does not reduce the numbers of irregularly staying migrants but causes great individual harm and exacerbates social inequalities to the detriment of individuals, families and communities alike. The costs of exclusion from services greatly surpass those of inclusion. Inclusive measures that address the realities at local and regional level and invest in the fundamental rights of all persons and universal access to essential services are vital to reduce poverty and social exclusion, improve social cohesion, increase equality and generate inclusive growth.
The Recommendation by the European Commission is a step into the right direction to fulfil its commitments on tackling social exclusion and child poverty, and in recognising this includes, at least, access to health services for undocumented children. With links made to the implementation and monitoring processes of the EU2020 Strategy and EU financial mechanisms, it is now up to member states and regional governments to secure investment in children during these times of severe cuts in social spending, and the EU and civil society to apply pressure when necessary.
Michele LeVoy is the director of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), a human rights NGO.Blogactiv Team