Those forced to flee their lands to escape persecution and death are under a lot of pressure - even upon arrival in a secure country. Child refugees find it particularly difficult.
Those arriving in a new country where they don't speak the language and the culture is new and unfamiliar, are obviously going to find it tough. It's even harder for children. They have fewer possibilities to find the right words. In most cases they have no experience with the authorities or official procedures and have no idea what bureaucratic pitfalls await them.
Between 3,000 and 6,000 children currently live in Germany without their parents and without the care of relatives or friends. The majority of them come from Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan and Iraq. "These children are particularly vulnerable," said Günter Burkhardt, director of Pro Asyl, an organization advocating rights for refugees. "They cannot see what is best for them. They need a guardian who is on their side."
In order to do that, Burkhardt argues that "a Europe-wide clearing process" was necessary in order to determine what is best for the child. The process would provide time for refugee children to get a better picture of their situation: Do I really want to apply for asylum? What are my reasons and can I back them up? Most children can't even begin to answer these questions. If they arrive without their families, they need a guardian who will represent their interests.
Burkhardt advocates the rights of child refugees in Germany
In Germany, a number of organizations already exist to do just that - for example, the clearing house in the Western city of Dortmund. For Frank Binder, an advisor on asylum and refugee issues for the city government, the main aim of the clearing house is to give refugee children time and peace. The house provides various types of assistance, such as language tuition or the placement of a guardian. Both medical and psychological support are also offered.
But for a long time now there haven't been enough places. In Dortmund, there is room to care for 40 children and "these places are all taken." The demand for places is particularly high because "400 unaccompanied refugees arrived in Dortmund last year," Binder told DW.
In Germany, people legally become adults at the age of 18 and thus entirely responsible for their own actions. But children who have been forced to flee their country of origin are expected to decide whether or not they want to apply for asylum by the age of 16. That's not acceptable to Günter Burkhardt. "We've been criticizing that for years," he told DW. He is calling for the age by which refugees must decide to be raised to 18.
The problem can also be seen in the Dortmund clearing house. Guardians help and advise the refugees there. The advice, according to Frank Binder, can also result in a refugee child not applying for asylum. He said that the primary task of the clearing house was "to organize measures to help the refugees to integrate." This includes making it possible for the children to attend kindergarten or school. German lessons and remedial classes also assist with the integration process into German society.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Children prohibits discrimination against children. But that is not adhered to in Germany, said Albert Riedelsheimer of the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees. He said social assistance is an example of that. A German child has the right to 251 euros ($314) per month in welfare support, while refugee children receive just 132 euros per month ($165). Riedelsheimer sees that as "second class welfare."
Sabine Skutta of the Commission for the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children in Germany insists that such regulations defied not only current international law, but also the principle of equal treatment which is part of the German Constitution.
Günter Burkhardt is angry that refugee children are being neglected and discriminated against in Germany and that the German Aliens Law takes priority above the well-being of refugee minors. But he's especially angry at the fact that refugee children can be imprisoned in Germany. He believes this is unacceptable and calls for the German government to outlaw custody pending deportation for minors.
Should an application for asylum be rejected, refugees without temporary visas must leave the country. Until deportation occurs, refugees are often forced to sit for days or weeks in prison. That has been condemned not only by Pro Asyl, but also by the vice-president of the German parliament, Wolfgang Thierse. Thierse is also the patron of the Commission for the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children in Germany and views the imprisonment of child and teenage refugees as a "political and moral scandal." He describes it as a "disgrace for a democratic country subject to the rule of law."
Author: Dirk Kaufmann / hw
Editor: Michael Lawton