When considering access to education, professional opportunities and culturally stimulating activities, no one questions the rights of child and adolescent citizens. It’s seen as positive for a child to visit a museum or learn how to play a musical instrument, and essential for these children and adolescents to go to school and have access to professional opportunities. It’s only in the case of minors with irregular immigration status, particularly when they are unaccompanied, that access to these fundamental resources and experiences is questioned.
In many countries, including France, the number of unaccompanied minors who lack access to these rights is staggering. The exact figure is unknown due to several contributing factors, including human trafficking and the disappearance of many unaccompanied minors after their minority status is denied. Yet, during the first COVID-19 confinement period in 2020, over 300 were left to fend for themselves on the street in and around Paris, without access to these fundamental rights. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was forced to intervene when a child’s minority status was denied in another French region, and he was forced into homelessness, during the same period. This is not the first time France, or a European country, has been condemned for similar reasons by the ECtHR. France is a country where intellectual ideals are venerated and national laws, in addition to international treaties that it is party to, grant all children and adolescents, regardless of their immigration status, the right to attend school. When considering these factors, it becomes clear that the treatment of unaccompanied minors is contradictory to these values.
At Soul Food, we have seen firsthand how access to educational, cultural and professional opportunities can change someone’s life, resulting in a positive outcome for the community as a whole. Our Professional Development Program opens doors for young Soul Food members—all of whom enter France as unaccompanied minors—who would have otherwise been left out of the professional race to the top of their careers and in some cases, not even given the choice to choose their profession. Visiting museums with us and local youth, gives young members the opportunity to step out of the marginalized reality that most of them live every day. Positive change is visible. Positive integration is attainable. It’s through these experiences and interactions that they improve their French (and sometimes English), find good jobs–reliable jobs, in prestigious establishments and with compassionate people–and stabilize an otherwise rocky existence. Through these opportunities and experiences, they are able to become active members of society, learn about French and European culture without suppressing their own cultural roots, and integrate positively in France. With time, at the very least they become autonomous, working participants of French society, but many go on to contribute to society in deeper ways.
By encouraging these young people to study and explore their professional interests, we’ve seen many excel. They are able to take what they already know and develop something more innovative with the skills they are learning in France. By being exposed to art, music and other cultural stimulants, they are given the space they need to express themselves, work through trauma and find the inspiration they need to come up with creative ideas and solutions.
While most states have recognized rights for unaccompanied minors that match those of native-born children and adolescents, therefore reflecting those set out in international law, there is still a long way to go before these declarations match reality. Positive integration should include equal access to educational, professional and cultural opportunities. It should also take an individual’s culture, interests and potential into consideration, as well as one’s country of origin, educational background, mental health, and family situation. This approach not only fosters positive integration for unaccompanied minors, but it also promotes general state interests, such as peace, innovation, stability, productivity, and justice. Therefore, by taking these elements into account, states are also inherently prioritizing their own interests, as well as the interests of unaccompanied minors. With migration flows continuing to increase (UNHCR reported 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide in 2017 and 82.4 million in 2020, and IOM reported 271,642,105 total migrants globally in 2019, compared to 248,861,296 in 2015 and 220,781,909 in 2010), finding comprehensive solutions is both the humane option and seemingly the only one that ensures the attainment of states’ interests.
Creative solutions are what countries need in order to help unaccompanied minors and other migrant and refugee populations integrate in positive ways. Without this, tensions will only continue to intensify as waves of migration continue to rise. Assimilation is not the way forward, and neither is denial. Unaccompanied minors must be made to feel welcome. They must attend school regularly and be granted access to cultural and professional opportunities so that they can help create a brighter future for us all.