Unaccompanied migrant children and foster families with a migration background: a perfect match?

On Wednesday, 5 May 2021, the U-CARE team in Belgium successfully organized an online event that brought together over 120 Belgian stakeholders on the topic of fostering unaccompanied migrant children (UMC) in families with a migration background.

The event took place in the framework of the Belgian activities under the U-CARE project which started in January 2021 for a period of 20 months and aims at developing and strengthening alternative care for unaccompanied migrant children in Belgium, Germany and Greece. The Belgian activities, implemented by IOM Belgium and Pleegzorg Vlaams-Brabant en Brussel, focus mainly on recruiting, training and assisting foster families with a migration background. Researchers and practitioners indeed tend to agree that family foster care is a better placement option for UMC compared to living alone or in large-scale centers. Nevertheless, many countries face shortages in foster families and even more so with regards to foster families with a migration background, as recruitment campaigns rarely appeal to these families. U-CARE in Belgium is committed to building further on good practices and diversifying foster care through an integrated culture-sensitive approach.

But is the focus on foster families with a migration background for unaccompanied migrant children the right and only option to consider? Or do other aspects also play a role in establishing a successful foster relationship? These were just some of the considerations that the Belgian U-CARE event hoped to tackle through the interventions of two keynote speakers and an interesting panel debate.

After presentations on the work of IOM, the U-CARE project and the Belgian activities under the U-CARE project, the floor was given to Mr. Sammy Mahdi, the Belgian State Secretary for Asylum and Migration. As first keynote speaker, Mr. Mahdi gave an overview of his cabinet’s priorities with regards to reception and care of UMC. Central points in the State Secretary’s intervention were the need for cooperation between the various political levels and stakeholders through the taskforce on UMC and the newly established inter-ministerial conference for asylum and migration. Mr. Mahdi also highlighted the importance to diversify care modalities for UMC to ensure an adequate response to children and youngsters who have different needs.

“For some unaccompanied minors, family-based care indeed can give that sense of stability and security that they need. The proximity of a family also allows us to create an attachment that will keep these youngsters with us and avoid that they disappear and fall into the hands of people with bad intentions.”

After having recognized and emphasized the wonderful work of a strong network surrounding the UMC, whether it be legal guardians, foster families, schools, local organizations, as well as projects like U-CARE to further strengthen alternative care for UMC, the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Mr. Mahdi, stated that unaccompanied migrant children are and will remain a priority of his cabinet.

The next keynote speaker Frank Van Holen, Director of Care Policy at Pleegzorg Vlaams-Brabant en Brussel and guest lecturer at VUB, focused on the question of whether matching UMC and foster carers with a migration background is the preferred option. Mr. Van Holen captured the audience’s attention with an interesting, nuanced answer based on the international and national research available. That foster care is a preferred option for UMC was made clear instantly: there are many positive elements linked to foster care, such as higher satisfaction rate with regards to education and their place in society, more stability, more friends, better health and personal development outcomes, etc. Nevertheless, Mr. Van Holen also paid attention to the challenges of fostering unaccompanied migrant children, such as trauma-related issues, distrust and stress related to the procedure. The response to whether placements in culture-related families is the preferred option requires more nuance:

“There are quite some studies that show that both types of placements, cross-cultural and cultural-matching, have their advantages and disadvantages. Researchers have found that unaccompanied migrant children do not always want to be placed within culture-related families and that they pay most attention to the relationship with the foster parents and their personalities.”

Mr. Van Holen ended with some clear recommendations to policymakers and practitioners about the need to adequately support foster families on the one hand and UMC on the other hand, to stimulate a variety of social contacts, facilitate a continued relationship with family members back home, construct a relationship of trust and to reduce the stress by avoiding delays in the asylum procedure.

With the conclusions of national and international research fresh in mind, the event continued with a more practical angle, giving the floor to various Belgian stakeholders. Oddisee researcher Katja Fournier, who has years of valuable experience on the topic of UMC, took the lead in moderating a panel debate that brought together a diversity of individuals, each with their own practical expertise: Bieke Van Houdt, who as a legal guardian provides support to UMCs; IOM’s own Francesca Megna, who worked on the “Fostering Across Borders” project in the UK; Maryana Vukadinovic, Director of Mentor Jeunes, an NGO that recruits and supports foster families for UMC in the Brussels and Walloon region; and last but not least, dedicated foster father Youssef Himi. The panelists started with a reflective moment on the added values and challenges of fostering UMC within families with a migration background.

“Having a child-centered point of view is that we should not think that one solution fits all. It is important to include the child’s point of view and, wherever possible, make sure that a placement reflects the needs and point of view of the child. This means that children may prefer to be placed in Belgian families, while in some cases they will want to be placed in a context that is more familiar to them.” – Francesca Megna

Also, the audience was asked through a live poll whether fostering unaccompanied migrant children in foster families with a migration background could stimulate integration in society; more than 80% of the participants (somewhat) agreed that this is the case. These general considerations set the scene for the panel debate to dive into more specific topics: Ms. Van Houdt indicated some of the main differences in foster experiences with and without a migration background, while Ms. Vukadinovic discussed the recruitment of foster families.

“Children who are fostered in families without a migration background have to adapt in some cases to so many things at the same time or get the feeling that they have to drop things from their own culture. But I also see that those families where there is a big openness and curiosity towards the culture of the UMC, can also work very well.” – Bieke Van Houdt

“When recruiting, we cannot get locked into one profile of foster families. I believe that every family can bring their own added value.” – Maryana Vukadinovic

Ms. Megna listed some lessons learned from her own experience with the FAB project in the UK and working with foster agencies in the UK who have years of experience in successfully recruiting and matching families with a migration background. Mr. Himi gave us a glimpse into his decision-making process of becoming a foster father, his positive experiences in caring for his Afghan foster child and the fulfillment he and his family found fostering a UMC.

“I am a son of migrants myself and I believe that, with all modesty, we understand a bit better what it is to leave everything behind: family, friends,…. And I think he [foster son] knows that and because of this larger comprehension, he feels more and faster at ease.” – Youssef Himi

The Q&A session with the audience brought us deeper into topics of foster family recruitment and support, as well as on the topic of family reunification. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, the panel discussions and the event was wrapped up with an overview of the next steps in the U-CARE project.

From this event as well as desk research and consultations with experts conducted by the U-CARE project team, we can conclude that various UMCs do not see their needs met in traditional reception centers. Foster care can be a good option as it brings plenty of advantages and allows to create a trustful environment of protective factors for UMC. As many countries face shortages in foster families, there is a clear need to recruit a diversity of foster families. Current recruitment processes often fail to appeal to foster families with a migration background, although fostering UMC in these types of families can formulate an answer to challenges such as a sudden disruption with cultural values and norms, integration struggles, language, understanding the migration path, etc. Nevertheless, many experts and practitioners agree that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that a child-centered approach is necessary where the views and needs of the child are taken into account in the matching procedure. Finally, perhaps the most important conclusion is that with good matching in terms of personality and characteristics, adequate support and open-mindedness of foster families, a perfect match can be found for every unaccompanied minor.

Did the event spark your interest in the U-CARE activities? Register for the newsletter here to receive regular updates on the project and follow us on our social media: IOM FacebookIOM LinkedInFacebook Pleegzorg Vlaams-Brabant en Brussel

For more info on the U-CARE project and to access the recordings, click here. For more info on foster care in Flanders, click here.

The U-CARE project is funded by the European Union's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities