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Deutschland Unbegleitete minderjährige Flüchtlinge
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Steinberg

Germany's unaccompanied minor refugees

Uta Steinwehr / ws
July 19, 2016

In the wake of the Würzburg train attack, police are focusing their investigation on an "unaccompanied minor refugee." There are tens of thousands of such refugees in Germany. Here's an overview of the key facts.


How many unaccompanied minor refugees are living in Germany today?

According to the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees, at the end of January 2016 there were more than 60,000 children and adolescents in Germany who entered the country as a refugee without a parent or guardian. Most of them are 16 or 17 years old.

According to statistics provided by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, during the past year asylum applications were submitted for almost 14,500 unaccompanied minor refugees in Germany. Compared to 2014, that number had more than tripled.

Where do the minors come from?

In 2015, the main countries of origin were Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia. One in three of those asylum applications was submitted on behalf of a minor from Afghanistan, almost every fourth on behalf of one from Syria.

What happens when they arrive in Germany?

The usual procedure is outlined by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees as follows: the Youth Welfare Office takes care of the minors during the initial stages. It provides accommodation: They can stay with relatives or foster families, in youth service institutions or so-called clearinghouses which specialize in unaccompanied minors. Within 14 days, they are distributed across the country, provided there are no objections, legal or otherwise, against this course of action.

The Youth Welfare Office also makes a request for guardianship. A family court decides who assumes this responsibility. With respect to guardianship, home country legislation applies. If in a given country a person is officially of age at a date later than usual – in Togo, for example, at the age of 21 – the guardianship will be prolonged accordingly.

Next, their residential status will be clarified. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees points out that a considerable number of the minors in question - or, respectively, their legal representatives - forgo asylum applications and seek a different residential status. One example is the so-called Duldung (tolerance), which allows them to stay until obstacles for their deportation are cleared.

That's what it looks like in theory. In practice, however, the procedure is marred by numerous problems. Nils Espenhorst, an advisor at the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees, told DW that, for example, clarification of guardianship takes much too long and results in a delayed asylum application submission. All this, says Espenhorst, creates uncertainty and frustration. In his experience, older adolescents are also taken to collective accommodation centers again and again, instead of providing them with decentralized accommodation.

How do authorities determine they're minors if they carry forged documents or none at all?

The Youth Welfare Office determines the person's age. If there are doubts as to the age specified by the refugee, the Youth Welfare Office will resort to a variety of approaches. They run the gamut from simple age estimation, where behavior and psychological make-up are also taken into consideration, to a physical examination and even radiological examinations of the subject's teeth or collarbone. Carpus X-rays will reveal the degree to which the growth plate is closed. There is, however, no scientific method which can determine a person's age with 100 percent precision. There is always some degree of inaccuracy.

The Würzburg case: Are unaccompanied minor refugees specific targets for recruitment by so-called 'Islamic State'?

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution told DW it had no knowledge of IS specifically trying to approach unaccompanied minors. According to a spokeswoman, however, there were more than 300 reported incidents of Islamists trying to establish contact with refugees in general in the vicinity of shelters.

"Radicalization is not an important subject here," says Jürgen Soyer, managing director of Refugio München, a support and treatment center for refugees and torture victims. He estimates that, during the past year, around 180 unaccompanied minor refugees underwent psychotherapy there. "Now and again, adolescents are unsure of where they belong in this world. In this regard, however, there's no difference to German adolescents," affirms Soyer. In addition, young refugees have to come to grips with their memories of displacement and flight. "If they get the feeling that there is a full-fledged place for them in society, and if they are well taken care of, then they are not prone to radicalization," Soyer concludes.

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