BLOG: PhD student Barbara Ruiken spent 9 days in Melilla to learn about Unaccompanied Migrant Minors.
Photo: Norwegian student Ingrid Kvåle Fareide together with a child at an accommodation centre for unaccompanied minors. Credit: Runa Aarset.
Shortly after Easter, Olive Dwan (Fullbright researcher), Ingrid Kvåle Fareide and Runa Aarset (Comparative Politics Masters’ Program) and I (PhD Student at the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism) made our way to Melilla. A tiny enclave on the Moroccan coast, Melilla has been a gateway to Europe for migrants and asylum seekers from countries such as Morocco, Syria, Eritrea, Palestine as well as Asia. Melilla is regarded as one of the main transits of minors entering Spain, approximately 4000 of them come to Melilla each year.
The autonomous city of Melilla is of strategic importance for Spain as it has been for over 500 years, and the clean streets, green parks and western supermarkets are promises of a better life in Europe to most who cross the border from Morocco, legally and illegally. Most don’t want to stay in Melilla – they have destinations like Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavia in mind. Goals that require the dangerous and expensive passage over the Mediterranean.
In Melilla, we attended the 4th Seminar on Unaccompanied Minors, led by among others Prof. Marit Skivenes (Director for the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism). We also took part in the Spring School hosted and supported by the ERCPAMM – European Research Center in Policies and Action on Minors and Migration, together with a group of social work students from Germany led by Professor Dr. Ralf Rosskopf.
Over the course of 9 days we attended lectures in the Seminar on Unaccompanied Minors, visited several accommodation centres for unaccompanied minors, as well as adult migrants and refugees, participated in student-led presentations, and took part in a musical therapy session with unaccompanied minors. Many of the students had ideas for research projects in mind when coming on this trip, and used every opportunity to pepper officials and staff from the centres with questions that could shed light on the viability of these research projects.
What stood out from conversations with people caring for unaccompanied minors in the centres we visited was the clear tendency to see the minors as children first and migrants second, implementing Spains responsibility to provide a minimum amount of protection and support for all minors on its territory. There are wonderful people in Melilla working with these youngsters to provide them food and shelter, a basic education and vocational training, and efforts to help them overcome past trauma.
However, the children and young adults are often also instrumentalised by politics. Morocco does not recognise Melilla as Spanish territory and refuses to accept minors back into Morocco once they’ve crossed the border. Spain does not take steps to improve the conditions in their accommodation centres to deter more children from crossing the border.
One week in Melilla is of course not enough to really gain an understanding of the complex and multi-layered issues at play. After all, this is a region with a long history of territorial dispute, intercontinental trade and migration. I sometimes got the feeling that we were not told everything, such as when the minors we met systematically were presented as at least 2 years older than I would have guessed.
There are wonderful people in Melilla working with these youngsters to provide them food and shelter, a basic education and vocational training, and efforts to help them overcome past trauma.
Are the age assessments overly strict to avoid any young adults over 18 from unrightfully enjoying the benefits offered by Spanish child protection, or do the minors pretend to be older than they are to get temporary residence and working permits for Spain faster? Also, two minors we spoke to were very hesitant to say anything negative about the centre were they were staying, with the older telling the younger boy to only speak about the good things. Officials often pointed to the inhabitants’ ability to live peacefully in a multi-cultural and multi-religious environment, while newspaper report overt racism and hostility towards migrants.
Trips like these provide young researchers with inspiration and motivation for research, and provide opportunities to network with students from other countries as well as make contacts that can prove useful for later field work. The meetings with local authorities and organisations as well as migrants themselves were highly beneficial when it comes to the need for research in this area: the need for accurate and updated datasets on the flow of migrants, understanding their determinants, delving into their needs, hopes and dreams, and understanding their origins is vital to improve the implementation of the Convention on Human Rights as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The trip also pointed towards some challenges that would meet researchers seeking to do field work here, especially the language barrier (most officials and workers speaking mainly Spanish, and most migrants relying on Arabic or Berber). As field work with migrants and refugees also would require different levels of access to accommodation centres and groups working with migrants, cultural sensitivity and a knack for networking with Spanish officials would be vital.