In Belgium, unaccompanied foreign minors have to be represented by a legal guardian to carry out administrative processes | Photo: Picture alliance
In Belgium, unaccompanied foreign minors have to be represented by a legal guardian to carry out administrative processes | Photo: Picture alliance

Among the Ukrainian refugees arriving in Belgium are 600 unaccompanied minors. In order to register them administratively they need to be assigned legal guardians, according to Belgian law. But the numbers of those qualified to do this are insufficient. Almost 900 unaccompanied minors are still waiting to be assigned a guardian in Belgium.

In Belgium, the arrival of young unaccompanied Ukrainians fleeing war has shone a spotlight on the lack of legal guardians in the country. In fact, in Belgium at the moment, almost 900 unaccompanied minors are already waiting to be assigned a legal guardian, so they can start the administrative processes required in the country.

"Many unaccompanied minors have to wait on average four months before they are assigned a legal guardian. That compares to a wait of about one and a half months previously," said the Belgium Federal Justice Service (Fédéral de la Justice) to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

Several factors lie behind this lack of legal guardians. In 2021, there was an increase in the numbers of unaccompanied minors arriving in the country. But there is also a crisis at the heart of the profession of being a guardian. Many who work in the sector feel they are neither paid nor valued enough. According to the Belgium Federal Justice Service, 2021 was the year in which Belgium took in "the second greatest number of unaccompanied minors after 2015, amounting to 4,880 people."

Hedwige de Biourge, head of the unaccompanied minors unit at Fedasil (The Federal Agency for the reception of asylum seekers) told InfoMigrants: "Young Afghans have been making up the majority of unaccompanied minors over the last few years. Others come from North Africa, or could be young Eritreans or Ethiopians who are hoping to make it across the Channel to the United Kingdom."

Young Ukrainians 'accompanied by relatives'

So the arrival of the young Ukrainians has come on top of a situation that was already stretched to the limit. However, in many cases, the situation of the young Ukrainians is not directly comparable to that of young Afghans, for example. There are already about 600 young Ukrainians registered in Belgium.

"They tend to arrive with close relatives," confirms de Biourge, explaining that there also were cases of parents who brought their children to safety and then headed back to Ukraine.

However, even if they are accompanied by one or two adults, if they are without their parents, they still need a legal guardian according to Belgian law, because those adults do not possess the official parental authority needed for them.

In some regions of neighboring France, these young people are taken under the wing of the local authorities via the public agency Social Aid for Childhood (Aide Sociale à l’enfance – ASE). This agency is responsible for young unaccompanied minors once they have been assessed as such. However, if they are involved in any judicial or administrative procedures, they must be assigned an ad hoc representative, which is designated by the Public Prosecutor (Procureur de la République).

Ukrainian arrivals 'increased the pressure'

"The arrival of these additional young people fleeing war has not greatly altered the situation," explained Clément Valentin, Advocacy Officer for Unaccompanied Minors at Ciré (Coordination and Initiatives for Foreigners and Refugees) "but it has nevertheless increased the pressure on an already strained system." The Federal Justice System told Le Soir that they had a backlog of 890 young people awaiting assignation of a legal guardian.

In Belgium, a guardian can be a volunteer and work as one after having completed an approved training course, or they can be professional and work within organizations like the Red Cross or Caritas.

"The guardian is there to help young people with judicial and administrative processes; to help them gain access to help that is available to them; and to accompany them to their lawyer, that kind of thing," explains Clément Valentin, adding that you have to have someone who is very flexible with their timetable. The guardian has to be able to accompany the young person for anything they need at a moment’s notice, which makes it difficult to hold down another job in parallel. Having said that, the job is badly paid.

More investment in the pipeline

"A private volunteer guardian (which accounts for about 75% of guardians working) receives a fixed-rate allowance of €605,26 for each young person they are responsible for. On top of that they receive €85 to cover administrative costs, and they receive refunds for the paperwork they must send, as well as any travel costs they incur.

When it comes to guardians employed by an organization, the organization is able to claim a subsidy of €3,500 per year per guardian they employ, which is on the condition that they are looking after at least 25 minors in parallel. They then receive €25,20 per minor per month for any administrative or travel costs," explained Le Soir.

Faced with such a lack of available guardians, Belgium organizations working in the unaccompanied minors reception sector have called for the job to be better paid and better supported, so that those doing it feel more valued. The Belgium Justice Ministry, which depends on the services of these guardians, announced at the beginning of April that they would be investing €6.6 million in an attempt to improve the situation.

Article translated by Emma Wallis from the French original

 

More articles