Turning 18 as an unaccompanied minor in Ireland - “it was a very dark time”

Turning 18 as an unaccompanied minor in Ireland - “it was a very dark time”

  • New research puts forward recommendations for treatment of unaccompanied minors in Europe

10 June 2021

New research released today by Oxfam, the Greek Council for Refugees, the Dutch Council for Refugees, and ACLI France sounds the alarm about the risks facing young people seeking refuge in Europe. The research was conducted through interviews with refugees, frontline staff and researchers in Ireland, France, Greece, the Netherlands, and Italy.

The report looks at how unaccompanied minors across Europe are falling through the gaps and into situations of extreme vulnerability. The most worrying trend revealed in the report is the changes to supports once an unaccompanied young person in the asylum process reaches their 18th birthday.  

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, said: “While for many teenagers around the world, turning 18 is a milestone – a moment of joy and independence - our research finds that for minors seeking refuge in Europe, this is a moment of massive anxiety. As turning 18 symbolises losing support due to the sharp nosedive in protective legal frameworks.

“One of the key tenants of EU law is protecting minors regardless of their legal status. This protection helps shield them from the high risk of abuse, homelessness, and exploitation. Turning 18 does not mean these risks disappear overnight, yet the protection they receive dramatically shifts. No longer considered children in the eyes of the law, young unaccompanied minors can find themselves displaced for a second time.” 

Reuben, who arrived in Ireland as an unaccompanied minor and since been granted status*: “It’s hard, because you are just learning how to live with your foster family, and then you have to leave.” 

European law ensures that unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe are housed in child-appropriate accommodation and are appointed a social worker to support them with administrative and legal matters. In Ireland, unaccompanied minors in the asylum process are in many cases removed from foster or residential care once they turn 18 and are sent to Direct Provision - where they find themselves living in the same room as adult strangers and quite often in a different region to where they were first accommodated.  

Lee, who arrived in Ireland as an unaccompanied minor and since been granted status*: “You’re not fully an adult at 18, most Irish kids are still living with their parents at 18.” 

When asked what they would change about their experience, the young interviewees noted that they would like to see an end to the removal from foster or residential care to Direct Provision. They called for a more flexible system that would take the individual needs of the young person into account. Additionally, all of those interviewed noted that there were large disparities in opportunities between young people based in Dublin and those based in smaller Irish towns - with those in Dublin having better access to their aftercare worker, support organisations, and educational opportunities.

A focus group attendee stated that being allowed to stay in foster care after 18 would be good for mental health and would encourage young people to move forward. They said that it was very stressful to leave their foster family as soon as they turned 18 stating that, “it was a very dark time in their life until everything was sorted out” (Mo).

A secondary issue that arose in focus groups with professionals and guardians was the issue of family reunification law in Ireland, which is restrictive and has time restraints which give little consideration to the complexity of family tracing (locating a family member.) Interviewees gave several examples of young people whose application for family reunification was rejected because they waited too long after they received status, or they applied slightly after they turned 18**. This whole process places a massive responsibility on the young person and can cause considerable anxiety.

Clarken concluded: “With this report, we want to shed light on the traumatic and sudden process of turning 18 as an unaccompanied minor in Ireland. You go to sleep a child in the eyes of the law, and the next morning you wake up an adult and find you are stripped of many of the supports and protections you experienced when you first arrived. The security these young people were afforded is suddenly toppled.

“Oxfam will be writing to the Minister for Children, the Ombudsman for Children and the Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Children seeking meetings to discuss the findings of the report and to explore how the issues raised can be addressed.”

Erin McKay, Oxfam’s European Migration Campaign Manager and researcher and author of the Irish report section, said: “European countries need to step up. They must simplify asylum processes, set up guardianship schemes, create professional training programmes for people engaging with refugee youth, and invest in transitionary social housing with wraparound supports to help young people navigate the extremely complex systems that they find themselves in.  

“The EU also has a part to play by introducing best practices for European countries to help young people seeking protection in Europe to navigate their transition to adulthood."


* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the young people who contributed to the research report.

**Under the 2015 Act, an unaccompanied minor is entitled to reunification with his or her parents and the parents’ children under the age of 18. Aged-out minor beneficiaries of international protection who submit applications for family reunification after turning 18 years old may face difficulties in making successful applications for family reunification as they are no longer treated as children at the time of application (Cosgrave and Thornton, 2015).

Notes to editors  

  • Read the report and the report summary for ‘Teach us for what is coming: the transition into adulthood of unaccompanied minors in Europe’ . Oxfam will be hosting an EU event outlining the findings of the report on 29 June 2021. Contact Jade in our EU office at jade.tenwick@oxfam.org in relation to the conference.
  • The organisations who contributed to this research are Oxfam, the Greek Council for Refugees, the Dutch Council for Refugees, and ACLI France. The research was conducted through interviews with refugees, frontline staff and researchers in France, Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland and Italy.
  • According to AIDA's 2020 report, in Ireland, of the 1,926 applicants for international protection, 30 were unaccompanied minors. Numbers, as of July 2020, showed that there were 59 unaccompanied minors in the care of Tusla, the Irish Child and Family agency. A study published in 2018 cited Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria as their main countries of origin, with ages ranging from 13 to 17
  • In 2020 the Irish government also joined a ‘coalition of the willing’ of EU member states and committed to relocate 36 unaccompanied minors from the Aegean Islands. A Parliamentary Question put to Minister Simon Coveney on the 12 May 2021 stated that: ‘Ireland also has an existing commitment to accept 36 unaccompanied minors from Greece. Eight of these minors arrived in Ireland last June. Staff from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, along with staff from Túsla and An Garda Síochána, will travel to Greece in the coming weeks to interview 25 unaccompanied minors and 50 people in family groups, with a view to arranging their relocation to Ireland’. Minister Roderic O’Gorman reconfirmed this in a later PQ on the 27 May 2021.
  • Oxfam Ireland has been advocating for the passing of the International Protection (Family Reunification)(Amendment) Bill 2017 to address failings in Ireland’s Family Reunification system
  • Looking at the practices of five European countries the report found that incoherent policies, sparsely available essential services like language classes and difficulties accessing information on their rights severely impacts on a young person's ability to fully integrate into their new society.
  • The authors of the report also highlight good practices that can bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. One such example is transitionary housing programmes, which help young people get on their feet, and gain autonomy. In these programmes, children about to turn 18 can move into semi-autonomous apartments where they receive support to gain financial and personal independence. The report also finds that support systems – guardians and community-based programmes – can play a significant role in easing the transition. Specialised training to staff in contact with refugee youth to improve their understanding of the asylum system should also be developed.  
  • Actions at both an EU level and a national level are crucial to improving the transition process, to create a child-centred support system coordinating local and national competencies and to make a period of intense anxiety more manageable.  

Key recommendations:

  • Simplification of the administrative procedures   
  • Support to help young unaccompanied minors (UAMs) understand the bureaucratic system, management of finances and searching for accommodation. Both legal guardians and voluntary guardians play a fundamental role in helping the young person adjust and get on their feet  
  • Accessible professional training for actors engaging with refugee youth  
  • Transitionary social housing with support services for UAMs who turn 18  
  • Coordination mechanisms at local and national levels to foster effective communication and interaction  

What can the EU do? 

While this transition to adulthood falls mainly under the responsibility of EU countries, the European Commission has begun to address issues related to UAMs turning 18. These have focused on exchanging good practices, providing funding for integration projects, encouraging EU countries to facilitate access to education and training, strengthening guardianship systems as well as promoting national strategies to move away from a reception centre approach towards family and community-based care services with an adequate focus on preparing UAMs to leave care.  

While the EU funding can play a crucial role in identifying and promoting good practices, research and promotion is not enough. There is a need for a determined approach.

Our suggestion is three-fold:  

  • Use the new cycle of EU funding to address the issues highlighted in this research and implement key recommendations 
  • Promote and coordinate data collection on the transition to adulthood to ensure sustained commitment by all EU countries on their promise of employment and education for all young people 
  • Continued mainstreaming of UAMs specific issues into broader social policies and, most importantly, a Commission Guidance on the transition into adulthood taking a holistic approach on the needs, concerns and considerations in this complex process. 
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