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Denied a Future? Unaccompanied Minor Refugees in Berlin


Helin G.* is nineteen years old and her future will be decided on June 26th, beyond that she has no vision of her life.  On that Thursday, Germany will decide whether or not to grant Helin asylum, a decision which will, no doubt, change her life forever.  Either she will continue her life in Germany, where she has lived for the past eight years or she will be denied asylum and will face a future that is, at best, uncertain or, at worst, fatal. 

Helin is not alone in her quest for asylum in another country.  Worldwide, there are forty million refugees, that is, people who are forced by various circumstances or threat of persecution, to leave their home countries.  Half of this forty million people are minors under the age of eighteen.  

At the moment Germany has between five and ten thousand unaccompanied minor refugees.  An unaccompanied minor refugee is a person who is under eighteen and comes to Germany without parents or family. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Germany ratified in 1992 classifies minors as people under the age of eighteen, whereas, German law treats unaccompanied minor refugees who are over sixteen as adults.  

In Berlin, specifically, there are currently about nine hundred registered young refugees.  Additionally, there are an undetermined number of young refugees who are living in Berlin illegally.  For obvious reasons, it is nearly impossible to get exact numbers on how many of these types of young refugees there are in Berlin.  

While young refugees come to Germany from all over the world, currently the unaccompanied minor refugees are mostly from Vietnam, Angola, Lebanon, Palestine and Russia.  Minor refugees, specifically, are forced out of their countries for a variety of reasons, including war, poverty, sexual abuse, lack of educational opportunities, human rights violations, natural disasters or forced service as child soldiers.  Also, they are sent to Germany in a quest to find security, quality education, and work.

Upon arrival in the city, children who register as refugees are directed to a so-called “Clearingstelle”, a sort of clearing house where they must live for their first three months.  Here, the facility determines the identity and situation of the unaccompanied minor refugee.  Also, the refugee makes initial contact with the youth welfare office, which is in charge of granting them social benefits if they are under age sixteen.   They are also automatically assigned to a legal guardian who is in charge of their case.  If they are under sixteen they are directed toward the appropriate school district.  The circumstances for unaccompanied minors over age sixteen are vastly different; consequently, age assessment is one of the most important elements of this process.   

The Asylum Process in Germany

In Germany you have the opportunity to apply for asylum if you have an individual background of political persecution.  Most unaccompanied minor refugees who came to Berlin do not have this personal background.  Wolfgang Meier, head of the Federal Agency for Recognition of Foreign Refugees (BAFL) in Berlin says that “you know that children were not politically persecuted in their countries of origin.  In some cases it counts that the family [e.g. father] is persecuted.”  Of course, that is not the entire story.  Some young refugees are, in fact, personally persecuted in their home countries; for example, some are forced to be child soldiers from the age of 10 and sometimes even younger.  Also, some young refugees are seeking asylum because one or both of their parents is in some way politically persecuted in their home country, which puts them at risk for danger.  

The Interview

All asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minor refugees, in Germany are required to undergo an interview that German officials use to determine whether or not the state will grant asylum.  The asylum seekers must have specific information about what particular circumstances brought them to Germany.  All of the facts must be detailed with extreme precision because any lack of knowledge or hesitation on the asylum seeker’s part could result in a denial of asylum in Germany.  During the interview, the unaccompanied minor refugees must recount the very specific reasons why they have fled their home countries.  The interview can last up to five hours and the decision to grant asylum hinges on every word, the slightest hesitation or misstatement could result in a denial of asylum.  

The real problem is that the unaccompanied minor refugees are usually not adequately prepared for the interview process; generally they are not aware or informed of their rights as asylum seekers.  Andreas Meißner, coordinator of AKINDA, an organization that works closely with young refugees and trains private guardians, says that the “main problem” is that the kids “do not understand how important the interview is” in terms of evaluating their request for asylum.  They generally come into the interview scared and not fully understanding what to expect.  

It is vital to remember that most often the refugees are escaping from very traumatic experiences.  Petra Wünsche, psychologist who works at the Beratungs- und Betreuungszentrum (BBZ), a center for young refugees, says the “worst things can’t be remembered effectively because defense mechanisms prevent them from remembering and protect them from painful memories.  Also, traumatic experiences connected with war, crime and persecution contribute to experiences that are unthinkable and unspeakable.  Often there are secrets that they don’t want to talk about for safety reasons, shame and guilt.  You can’t imagine how much it damages them if they are forced to talk about their secrets in the interview without any careful preparation for the questions that are asked.”  


Upon registration as an unaccompanied minor refugee, all minor children are assigned to a court appointed legal guardian.  This guardian is responsible for taking care of the needs of the minor child throughout the course of the asylum process.  However, Caroline Hasselmann, a volunteer for AKINDA, says that most legal guardians simply do not have the time to devote all of their attention to each child.  There are conflicting reports about how many legal guardians there are in Berlin.  It varies from thirty to one hundred refugees for one legal guardian.  This ratio does not offer a good opportunity for the legal guardian to know information about the young refugee beyond his or her asylum “case”.

Some children, who have special circumstances, are assigned to private guardians who are directly responsible for taking them through the process of seeking asylum.  Private guardians are similar to legal guardians in that both are responsible for the young refugee’s welfare.  Caroline Hasselmann puts the difference between private and legal guardians into perspective saying, “private guardians concentrate on one child, legal guardians cannot put that much attention on one child.”  However, in most cases private guardians have a closer relationship to the child and are generally more aware of the specific situation of the child who they are responsible for. 

Still, private guardianships are very rare. There are sixty private guardians who are available for about one hundred young refugees in Berlin.  Andreas Meißner of AKINDA says that the state discourages private guardianships because “private guardians produce more costs” and they are more apt to represent the interests of the unaccompanied minor to larger extent than appointed legal guardians will.  The private guardians know the child’s rights and will make sure that they are enforced in all cases. 

Living Situation

Upon arrival, the unaccompanied minor will generally live in a “Clearingstelle” for three months and then they will move on to some sort of supervised group housing.  In this community housing, the children are supervised by social workers who are experienced in dealing with refugee children‘s issues.  During this time their expenses are covered by the youth welfare office, which gives them benefits and pays for their expenses.  However, the situation changes dramatically once the child turns sixteen.  

After turning sixteen, their benefits come from the general Social Welfare Law for Asylum Seekers which offers them fewer benefits than those young refugees under sixteen.  For example, the refugees must pay for things like German classes or special lessons.  Sabine Rotte, a social worker at the BBZ says that after turning sixteen the children must move to community accommodations for adult asylum seekers.  The community accommodations are generally not very sanitary or hygienic.  Inside, many people are forced to share a small space in order to make room for everyone. The community accommodations are not an appropriate place for young refugees age sixteen to eighteen based on their social development and special needs.  The fact remains that they are still children; yet, they are forced to live as adults and operate within a system that they are not yet fully equipped to handle.  

Until they are formally granted asylum in Germany, all asylum seekers have a “Duldung” or tolerance status in the country.  That classification has to be reviewed every three or six months depending on the specific case.  As asylum seekers unaccompanied minor refugees have a residence obligation, which means that they must stay in their assigned area.  If they want to leave they must apply for a vacation certificate that allows them to leave for a short, specific time.  

Age Assessment

One of the most important things in the clearing process is age assessment.  Under German law, all unaccompanied minors are treated as adults when they reach age sixteen.  Thus, in the “Clearingstelle” in the first three months state officials have to ascertain how old the young refugee is, if the child does not know or cannot document his or her exact age or if the child looks older than sixteen, the officials will guess or approximate the age.  

Wolfgang Meier says that for refugees who appear to be between fifteen and nineteen years old officials use “Inaugenscheinnahme” to determine age, it involves people from the child and youth welfare office looking at the faces of the young refugees to determine their true age. Both Sabine Rotte and Andreas Meißner say that sometimes the state uses a variation of this technique that requires the young refugee to undress completely and stand before a doctor so that age can be determined by the young refugee’s physical maturity.  However, it seems like it would be very difficult to distinguish a fifteen year-old from a sixteen year-old based solely on physical appearance.

If the state determines that a young refugee is over the age of sixteen then he or she is treated like an adult.  As such, he or she is not entitled to support and benefits that are appropriate to his or her age and social development.  The young refugees over sixteen are in a disastrous situation where they must make all of their applications and requests alone without any support.  


Helin G.* did not attend school at all until she went to a German school starting when she was fourteen.  For her first three years in Germany she lived with her brother and her older sister.  Her brother would not allow her to go to school.  Now she has completed her education but she is unable to do anything beyond that.  She is only attending language classes to improve her German.  Still she has the desire to do more.  Helin would like to get trained to work in public service, in a nursing home taking care of elderly people but her life has been put on hold until Germany reaches a decision on her application for asylum.    

All children in Berlin have the right and the duty to go to school until the age of sixteen.  Most Berlin schools are trying to be accommodating.  Sabine Rotte says that there are special classes for foreign children to learn German language in almost all schools in Berlin.  The language classes are designed so that the young refugees can learn German in order to advance within the German education system.   Still, Andreas Meißner says that there are not enough opportunities for state sponsored education and the courses depend on the district youth welfare office’s ability to provide programs.

However, after the refugees are done with school their prospects dim because asylum seekers are not allowed to work nor are they allowed to get any sort of job training.  Asylum seekers are caught in a perpetual catch twenty-two because they are not allowed to work by law but by not working they endure the perception that foreigners do not want to work, are lazy and are simply taking advantage of the German social welfare system.  

Psychological Problems

Helin G.* was sent to Germany by her grandfather to escape anti-Kurdish soldiers in Turkey.  She remembers that the Turkish soldiers would come into her Kurdish village to beat and abuse the women.  Her memories of that experience continue to haunt her.  For the first years in Germany she was too afraid to go anywhere by herself, fearing that people would beat and attack her if she was alone.  She refused to travel without her older sister for fear of what would happen if she ventured into the city alone.  Even today she is haunted by dreams of the past and the abuse she and her family suffered as Kurds in Turkey. She couldn’t talk about her problems until she came to the refugee center, which offers psychological counseling and care.  She says, “in the last eight years I went to the [medical] doctor only three or four times because I was afraid of what the doctors would do to me.” Her fears and her trauma over her early childhood experiences manifest themselves in the physical act of pulling her own hair out of her head, creating a noticeable bald spot in the back of her head. 

Helin’s psychological issues are not uncommon because she, like many unaccompanied minor refugees seeking asylum, fled from terrible personal conditions in her home country.  She arrived in Germany because her grandfather forced her to go and was tossed into Germany’s asylum process.  The children have been separated from their families most likely due to extremely tragic circumstances.  They are alone in a foreign country where they typically do not even speak the language.  Therefore, it is not surprising that they are both scared and confused when they get to Germany. Psychologist Petra Wünsche says, “on the one side fleeing means hope to get out of danger and on the other side the loss of social networks, everything familiar, people who keep you safe….  [Due to the] separation from or loss of their families in this traumatic moment children need a stable, safe environment.  For these children the risk is really high to continue the traumatic situation in [Germany]. These children need protection and stability in their lives.  The circumstances surrounding their application for asylum in Germany rarely offer the necessary support.  


On top of all that, Helin G.* feels disdain from German society in her every day life.  She says the she is treated like a second a class human being in Germany, saying that people look at her badly because she is  foreigner and worse yet, an asylum seeker.  She says, “I am a human being.  I do not understand why they treat me differently. . . .  In Germany you can be nice, friendly, a good person but if you’re here as an asylum seeker you‘re nothing.”  She says that there is a hierarchy in Germany where Germans place Germans above everyone else, then foreigners, then asylum seekers, with asylum seekers being the absolute lowest social class.   

The integration issue is a large one with all foreigners in Germany.  Germany certainly has issues with integrating foreign people, including migrant workers, refugees, immigrants and other foreigners, into German life.  From the very beginning during the interview stage, unaccompanied minor refugees get the impression that they are not wanted in Germany, thus, they never feel welcomed as an integral part of German society.  

As Sabine Rotte says in order for integration to work there must be a “society that wants to integrate people and people who are willing to integrate others into society.”  Germany has yet to prove that it wants to integrate these children into society.  She further explains that racism in Germany is probably a big factor in the discrimination against asylum seekers because most are visibly not German.  Additionally, there are structural differences placed between Germans and asylum seekers that are hard for people to cross.  

The system requires that there be marked differences in the way that asylum seekers are treated, which makes the contrast between German children and young refugees even more clear.  The vacation certificates, language differences, and uncertain futures make for different experiences and different realities for young unaccompanied refugees.

Denied a Future?

It is essential to remember that the unaccompanied minor refugees are children and they simply do not get the same rights as other children in Germany.  Germany is effectively denying those in Berlin a future because they are never able to establish ties to their life here.  

Due to their residence status, these young refugees can never know how long they will live in Germany. Thus, they can’t plan on life in the long-term.  Andreas Meißner of AKINDA says that the unaccompanied minor refugees “want to plan their future like all youngsters do...the problem is they really don’t have the opportunity to think that far....They are psychologically not able to plan.”  

Germany’s asylum policy toward unaccompanied minor refugees is violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention calls for equal rights for the world’s children no matter their status, recognizing the fact that children are never the enemy.  

When we asked Helin about her prospects for the future she said, “When I think about my future there is nothing to see.” As we write her fate is being determined by the Court, the decision that it makes will dictate the course of the rest of her life.  Today is the culmination of a long eight years that she has been caught in bureaucratic limbo. Denied a future indeed. 





Rotte, Sabine, Social Worker at the BBZ (Young Refugee Center)

*G., Helin (name changed anonym), unaccompanied minor refugee in Berlin

Hasselmann, Caroline, Volunteer at the AKINDA association

Meier, Wolfgang, Head of the Federal Agency for Recognition of Foreign Refugees

Gundlach, Ursula, interviewer at the Federal Agency for Recognition of Foreign Refugees

Meißner, Andreas, Coordinator at the AKINDA association

Wünsche, Petra, Psychologist at the BBZ (Young Refugee Center). Personal email to the authors.




http://www. emz-berlin.de/projekte_E/pj05rep/3d_ind.htm 



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Germany Germany 2003


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