“I want to feel safe” – A report on protecting unaccompanied and separated children from day one

Using innovative design methods, UNHCR and other stakeholders have explored how to ensure a child-friendly and predictable reception of children on the move.

UNHCR/ © Diego Ibarra Sánchez

Together with relevant stakeholders, UNHCR initiated a process which uses innovative design methods to explore how to improve child protection policies and practices in the inital reception of unaccompanied and separated children. The result is a report with key recommendations and findings which inform how to make children feel safe from day one when arriving in a new country.

In 2015, Majid was one out of 35,000 unaccompanied and separated children who came alone to Sweden in search of protection. Majid fled across the Mediterranean with armed smugglers, spent 8 hours in the trunk of a car, and didn’t eat for the last 15 days of his dangerous journey. Finally, he arrived to Sweden. Not knowing where to turn to as an unaccompanied child, he found his way to a mosque, in which he slept for four days.

Majid’s story is unfortunately not an unusual one; children arriving alone to Sweden unanimously express their need to feel safe, as well as a clear desire for a predictable process and overview of what is to happened next.

“I had no idea of what was happening during my first days in Sweden. When you come alone, you are completely alone. You don’t know the language, you don’t know that culture, and you don’t know anything!”

The sudden arrival of a large number of children presented challenges to government and child protection systems all over Europe, and with this exceptional strain shortcomings in the reception and care systems were exposed. Against this background, the UNHCR’s Regional Representation for Northern Europe decided to convene a group of key stakeholders engaged in various aspects of child protection, in order to review the current situation, identify gaps and challenges in the reception of unaccompanied and separated children and develop a set of practical recommendations for improvement.

”I was just handed a train ticket. I had no idea where I was going. I just sat and stared at the board and compared the letters on the ticket. I could not even read what it said.”

The result is the UNHCR Child Protection project, known as Co-lab 2.0, undertaken with the support of Förnyelselabbet, a Swedish policy lab that brings together stakeholders to jointly analyze complex situations using a human-centered design process. When undertaking this process, the starting point is to ask and involve the children themselves. We must remember that children are the best experts to explain their own circumstances and experiences with reception.

 “It’s so cool how you want us to be involved. /…/ It is so common that they talk about us but they never ask us to be in the meetings discussing solutions. And yet, they talk about change. Change for us.”

Co-Lab 2.0’s results have increased the breadth and depth of our understanding of children’s challenges, perceptions and needs while presenting realistic solutions that build on the exsisting systems and mechanisms to meet these needs and improve the well-being of children in the initial reception procedure. The report includes key recommendations for an increasingly child-centered and predictable reception procedure, as well as 10 key considerations to further explore to enable children to feel safe once they arrive to a new country.

For the full report: UNHCR – ‘I want to feel safe’