In good company: Non-profit lends a hand to the youngest refugees


Minor-Ndako takes care of refugee children who arrive in Flanders alone, giving them the best possible chance to overcome the trauma and start rebuilding their lives

Alone no more

A report this summer by the children’s charity Unicef showed that for every 10 child refugees who make the journey from North Africa to Europe, nine are travelling alone. In the first five months of the year, more than 7,000 under-18s arrived in Europe via Italy without parents or other adults – twice as many as in the same period last year.

For the past 14 years, the Brussels-based non-profit Minor-Ndako has been offering care and guidance for such children in Flanders and the capital. By providing shared accommodation, counselling and other practical help, they aim to integrate unaccompanied foreign minors into local life and give them the best possible chance to rebuild their lives.

“In 2002, when we were set up, there was a real lack of care for unaccompanied minors,” spokesperson Semma Groenendijk explains. “Nobody really knew what to do with them, so they’d often end up stuck in massive reception centres.”

The term “unaccompanied minor” has a strict legal definition, referring to anyone under the age of 18 from a non-EU country who is in Belgium without a legal guardian. They may be under the care of an older sibling, other relative or family friend, but if that person is not the child’s legal guardian, they’re considered to be unaccompanied. 

Back on their feet

When these minors arrive in Belgium, the government appoints a guardian, who arranges their initial accommodation and represents them in legal matters. Once they’ve been taken in by Minor-Ndako, a teenager is likely to live in a supervised residential group for a year or more, going to school, learning Dutch and getting their asylum process under way.

Then, when Minor-Ndako staff feel they’re ready, they can move on to a shared apartment, where the emphasis is less on care and more on learning to stand on their own two feet.

Most people have their networks of family, friends, colleagues; these kids have nothing

- Semma Groenendijk of Minor-Ndako

“There is an assistant, but the youngsters have a budget, and they have to buy their own food and cook for each other,” says Groenendijk. “After that, we have studios where they can live on their own, but we can also help them put down a deposit somewhere and set up in their own place: the kind of stuff you’d normally expect your parents to help with.”

The organisation also helps them find a job if they’re finished with school. “They can also see our psychiatrists, and we can go with them to the town hall to sort out their paperwork.” 

Minor-Ndako comes under the umbrella of the Flemish government’s Integrated Youth Care service, and though it welcomes donations to pay for extra-curricular projects, its core activities are government-funded. Indeed, without this guaranteed income, it wouldn’t be able to operate.

Shortly after it was set up, the government asked it to apply its expertise to support local children who find themselves in situations where it isn’t safe or appropriate for them to live at home.

A point of contact

“So it’s not just refugees,” Groenendijk says. “We happen to mostly work with migrant children, but we also work with Flemish children who have parents who for whatever reason can’t take care of them in the short or long term.”

While some of these children go home at the weekends or during school holidays, others have no contact with their family whatsoever. Unless a judge rules that parents aren’t allowed to see the child, Minor-Ndako tries to give them as much chance as possible to see their parents. “The goal is to not have them here any longer than necessary,” says Groenendijk.

The centre’s base in the Brussels municipality of Anderlecht houses a dozen children, from infants up to age 12. Next door, there is accommodation for the most vulnerable unaccompanied minors between 12 and 18, with space for 10 young people at any time. Staff are there 24 hours a day, and the organisation employs three dedicated psychologists.

An important part of integration is helping young people create a social network. “Most people have their networks of family, friends, colleagues; these kids have nothing,” says Groenendijk. “It helps with integration, but the Belgian kids need it as well. If you can’t spend time with anyone from your family when you’re a child, what else do you have?”

Forging a network

To solve this problem, Minor-Ndako has created a buddy project, where members of the public volunteer to spend some time with a youngster. Some families might take a child for the whole weekend; students might take older children shopping every now and then.

“Some of the youngsters need regular contact, but not all of them do,” explains Groenendijk. “We’re lucky to be able to really look at each kid and see what they need and adapt to that. It doesn’t have to involve a massive commitment: it could be taking them to the park once a week or just going for an occasional coffee.”

It doesn’t have to involve a massive commitment: it could be taking them to the park once a week or just going for an occasional coffee

- Semma Groenendijk

Taking this one step further, the organisation has just teamed up with students of social work and pedagogy at Odisee University College in Brussels. Eight final-year students – coached by social workers – will spend eight hours a week for the next year working one-to-one with an unaccompanied minor outside the Youth Care system.

They’ll be helping them with practical issues such as managing their budget and applying for jobs, as well as exploring their social and educational needs. Nursing students from Odisee are also being recruited as “free-time” buddies.

Despite the visible increase in refugees heading to Europe that caught the public’s attention last year – and the current well-publicised fallout from the closure of the Jungle camp in Calais – the issue of unaccompanied minors is not new. It’s something that professor Ilse Derluyn from the department of social work and pedagogy at Ghent University has been studying for years.

Treating the trauma

She started working on her PhD in 2002, the same year Minor-Ndako was established. At the time, she explains, there was almost no research being done on the emotional and psychosocial wellbeing of unaccompanied minors.

“It was important to get some insight into how their emotional wellbeing is considered,” says Derluyn, “to explore what kind of problems they have, whether these problems are worse than for refugees and migrants coming with their parents, and to see what sort of interventions were necessary.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly, symptoms of depression and anxiety are very prevalent among such children, with leads to behavioural problems like aggression and self-harm as well as suicidal tendencies. 

“A lot of them are very traumatised both by the situation in their country of origin and the journey they’ve had to make,” explains Groenendijk. “As well as practical help, there’s a massive need for psychological support.”

The attention paid to unaccompanied minors in policy terms has always involved trying to limit the numbers who come here in the first place, and limiting their protection, Derluyn claims. Providing care is criticised as being an incentive for more people to attempt to come to Europe.

“While the number of unaccompanied minors has increased over the years, the support they receive has decreased in terms of the number of staff,” she says. “They are also accommodated in larger groups as the more intensive ways of caring for them in smaller units or foster care is limited to certain groups.

"We are introducing subgroups within that overall group of unaccompanied minors. I think this is a change in policy related to an overall hardening of migration policy to all migrants and refugees.”

In figures

  • Between 2008 and 2014, the average number of unaccompanied minors registered in Belgium was eight a day. In the final months of 2015, this reached almost 40 a day
  • Last year, 5,047 unaccompanied minors were registered in Belgium, up from 1,780 the previous year. Of those, 3,099 sought asylum, compared to 765 in 2014
  • In 2015, Minor-Ndako supported 181 children, 112 of whom were unaccompanied minors. They came from 35 countries, including Afghanistan (44%), Syria (8%), Somalia and Eritrea (5% each)
  • In total the organisation can accommodate 100 young people at any one time
  • Five children were reunited with their families last year, and two were taken into foster care

Photo courtesy Minor-Ndako