Technical briefing: unaccompanied minors in Europe – implications for health, social and education sectors

WHO/Andrew Wheeler

A technical briefing on unaccompanied minors (UAMs) in Europe was held during the High-level conference on working together for better health and well-being, which took place on 7-8 December 2016 in Paris, France. Despite a lack of accurate data across Europe, evidence shows that the number of UAMs arriving to Europe has greatly increased in recent years; 88 300 UAMs applied for international protection in the EU in 2015, compared to approximately 23 000 in 2014 and 13 000 in 2013. UAMs may suffer severe health consequences during their journey, related to traumatic events while travelling and exposure to risk factors such as exploitation, abuse and trafficking. They can also face poor living conditions, uncertainty around the reception process and fragmented assistance within destination countries. Such situations may lead to poorer health outcomes.

Assistance to UAMs – including medical and psychological services, social care and education support – is often provided in a fragmented way and there is a lack of harmonization of policies and regulations across European countries. With this in mind, the technical briefing focused on the implications for the health, social and education sectors of the dramatic increase in UAMs arriving to Europe.  It also examined how these sectors can better integrate to address the challenge of providing services to UAMs. The session was chaired by Dr Santino Severoni, Coordinator, Public Health and Migration at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, and included a group of panelists that shared many perspectives on the topic of UAMs.

Dr Ranieri Guerra, Director General of Preventive Health, Ministry of Health, Italy, and Mr Ioannis Baskozos, Secretary General for Public Health, Ministry of Health, Greece, shared experiences from their respective countries, both of which are on the frontlines of the migration crisis. Dr Nathalie Simonnot, Deputy Director, Doctors of the World, provided insight from the perspective of a nongovernmental organization, underlining countries’ responsibility to protect children and provide psychosocial support for them. Anders Hjern, Professor of Paediatric Epidemiology, Centre for Health Equity Studies (CHESS), offered an interesting overview of the health of migrant children in Europe based on his recent research. He also described the powerful impact of education on the mental well-being of UAMs.

Mr Basil Rodriques, Regional Adviser, Health Systems & Policy, UNICEF, emphasized the need for adaptability when dealing with UAMs and underscored the fact that no single region can manage the issue of UAMs alone – a multi-regional approach is needed. He offered a cautionary note about creating separate, parallel systems for dealing with UAMs, advocating instead for integrated systems and modes of working. All panelists stressed the importance of sectors coming together to ensure the health and well-being of this vulnerable group, with Mr Baskozos reiterating the importance of universal health coverage for all children, including UAMs, and Dr Guerra calling for consistent treatment of migrants and UAMs across European countries.