The pandemic has negative effects on development opportunities and resilience among refugee children and adolescents at initial reception centres and large accommodation facilities. In places where children’s rights were already neglected due to geographic and social isolation, limited recreational options, cramped living conditions, a lack of privacy and limited access to education, the pandemic has further intensified this risk, particularly for girls.
The pandemic’s impacts on refugee children and adolescents at reception centres are yet to be documented or statistically surveyed. The lack of data makes it difficult to quantify and qualify shortcomings, including those relating to racist acts of violence. Only sporadic, local information is available, though this sheds light on structural deficits.
Accompanied minors are required to live at reception centres, which are cramped and offer limited privacy. Everyday family life is characterised by experiences of violence and an atmosphere of fear of being deported (cf. 5th/6th Supplementary Report to the United Nations, p. 62 ff). Children and adolescents at accommodation facilities were also particularly exposed to the risk of infection, as the living conditions mean infection-control rules cannot be upheld.
Isolation and exclusion from social connections are challenges that especially arise at accommodation facilities with no access to the standard municipal care. In-house child-care and substitute educational services at the accommodation facilities cannot replace statutory structures, and can affect the children’s right to education and development. Disadvantage in the educational system intensified between March and June as a result of day-care and school closures. External educational services outside the family unit are particularly essential for children whose native language is not German, so as to ensure they can be part of and have access to mainstream society.
Making up for school closures by studying from home is disproportionately more difficult at accommodation facilities compared to normal family homes. Access to materials and remote learning, and contact with teachers, was generally severely limited due to a lack of technological equipment, parents’ language difficulties, and a lack of opportunities for independent learning in cramped spaces.
Despite the legal entitlement for accompanied minors, there are generally no structures in place at reception centres to provide access to youth welfare services. Child and youth welfare services only reach families at accommodation facilities if situations threatening children’s welfare already exist. Experts trained in children’s rights are still in short supply, despite the protection schemes available. Between March and June 2020, there was even less access to child and youth welfare, as the pandemic had intensified skill shortages at places such as youth welfare offices, and many government workers were unable to do home visits. In cases where child-welfare reports were sent by specialists at accommodation facilities, field studies found that, between March and June 2020, the youth welfare office sometimes did not respond at all.
Educational, recreational and sporting services within and outside of the accommodation facilities were cut once contact restrictions began in March 2020. As such, children and adolescents lost the opportunity to maximise the development options and maintain supportive networks and helpful contact with educators beyond the confines of their accommodation facilities, which are generally not very child-friendly.
Limited visitation rights already massively reduce the possibility of having an independent social life, and further restrictions were introduced at a number of accommodation facilities as a result of the pandemic. Between March and July 2020, for instance, some accommodation facilities went into total lockdown, not allowing any visitors, or, in other cases, residents who tested positive were strictly quarantined. This resulted in intensified (repeat) experiences of police violence or racist incidents in the context of police operations.
Children and adolescents end up bearing great responsibility within the family when it comes to obtaining information on everyday processes due to their often better German skills. Yet information about COVID-19 and the relevant rules was not provided in child-friendly formats or across the board in various languages, causing anxiety and uncertainty amongst families at accommodation facilities.
Uncertainties about procedures, due to the unavailability of relevant authorities, intensify the unsettled feeling already experienced by parents in relation to asylum and residency matters, and this has an effect on children too. Counselling services and lawyers were unavailable for months, further fuelling existing fears.
Family reunions were also subject to substantial additional barriers and delays: The pandemic prolonged application acceptance and processing by the International Organization for Migration and the German Federal Foreign Office. Embassy closures and staff cuts meant fewer processing capacities. The German foreign representations around the world, for instance, issued a total of 4,059 visas in the first quarter of 2020, whereas, in the second quarter, only 220 visas were issued to persons with protection status for the purposes of reuniting them with their families. This is a pandemic-induced decline of 96%. The legally permitted quota of 1000 approved family reunifications per month was thus not met during that period.
The severely limited worldwide passenger traffic, border closures and increased entry restrictions also made it more difficult to get into Germany from abroad. Citizens of third-party states whose visas would have entitled them to enter Germany after 15 March 2020, but, due to the travel restrictions, could no longer be used for entry and subsequently expired abroad, were able to apply for visa re-issuing once the travel restrictions were lifted.
On a positive note, age tests were not re-conducted during these re-issuing procedures, meaning that children who had become adults in the meantime were still considered children, their age being counted from the date of their initial application. A negative aspect in terms of children’s rights, however, is the fact that various other application criteria had to be proven by the applicant, creating new obstacles that put additional strain on them. Special humanitarian grounds as per Section 23 of the German Residence Act (AufenthG) particularly had to be re-proven, resulting in further delays during which families were forced to be apart.
Family reunions within the EU also proved to be more difficult than before as a result of the pandemic. Procedures took longer, partly due to issuing errors and additional scheduling problems, particularly in relation to reuniting families from Greece in Germany. This is especially noteworthy, given the serious lack of hygiene at the accommodation facilities on the Greek islands is well known, posing a constantly high risk of COVID-19 infection for all residents, including children.
Deportations of families with children in high-risk areas have resumed with increased frequency. The fear of deportation has intensified at accommodation facilities, coupled with the concern about the associated health risk. The parents’ fears are projected onto the children.
- The National Coalition Germany recommends that the UN Committee call on the German federal government to
- 01. Promptly spread asylum-seekers across the various municipalities and limit the mandatory requirement of having to live at a reception centre to a maximum of one month. Refugee families should be housed locally in small units or apartments as quickly as possible.
- 02. Immediately facilitate access to youth welfare services for refugee children by increasing the number of qualified staff who have an awareness of the living conditions at accommodation facilities. Experts should undergo further training in dealing with coronavirus and other crises as part of their work with refugee families and children, so that they can still have contact with these people, e.g. even with heightened hygiene/safety measures. In terms of reduced social-service staffing and restricted access to educational and recreational services, alternative services need to be offered and made available to refugee children and adolescents in all forms of housing.
- 03. Introduce a direct right for underage refugees to access day-care centres and compulsory schooling across all states, establish suitable education-promoting services to reduce disadvantage in terms of remote learning for refugee children and adolescents, and ensure all accommodation facilities have WiFi.
- 04. Provide child-friendly information on the measures taken and pandemic-related information in various languages across the board.
- 05. Give children and their families unrestricted access to healthcare for coronavirus-related issues.
- 06. Facilitate family-reunion procedures digitally wherever possible, and, if this is not possible, increase staffing capacities. Reassessment of application criteria for family reunions should also be waived, particularly the special humanitarian grounds as per Section 23 AufenthG in the visa re-issuing process.
- 07. Abolish the quota rules for family reunions, or at least apply them to all non-exhausted quotas. A generous extension should also be arranged for all deadlines that have elapsed due to coronavirus.
- 08. Advocate for all children’s rights in EU asylum policy, particularly for child wellbeing to be given top priority there too.
- 09. Take decisive action against coronavirus-related racism.
- 10. Encourage and finance surveys of the experiences of refugee children and adolescents during this unprecedented pandemic situation in order to highlight the shortcomings.