Washington, D.C. – Today, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) issued guidance for protecting unaccompanied children fleeing Afghanistan. While the international community’s mass evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals has concluded, the flow of refugees from the Taliban regime has only just begun. KIND urges the U.S. government and national and international organizations to collaborate in implementing a streamlined and coordinated approach to protecting and serving unaccompanied and separated children.
“We still do not know how many Afghan children will seek international protection, but we do know that early reports suggest that children are arriving in many countries, including the United States, some having lost their families forever, others having been separated from their loved ones in the chaos of fleeing their homeland,” said KIND President Wendy Young. “What the United States and other nations do now will determine the trajectory of these children’s lives. The United States has a responsibility to get this right.”
In its policy document released publicly today, KIND draws on its experience serving unaccompanied children and separated children globally, including thousands of children fleeing harm in Central America and Mexico and seeking protection at the United States’ southern border. KIND has shared the following recommendations with administration officials, urging them to swiftly implement these policies that protect unaccompanied children arriving in the United States.
- Enhance international cooperation to support family reunification and resettlement – It is a cardinal principle of refugee resettlement that every effort should be made to preserve family unity, including by reuniting unaccompanied children with family members in other countries when in the best interests of the child. KIND notes that the United States and European nations currently welcoming Afghan refugees are insufficiently prepared to bring about transatlantic family reunifications swiftly and with full consideration of what is in the best interests of the child. U.S. and European governments, and the international community more widely, should establish a harmonized process for facilitating family tracing and reunification that is rooted in child safety and the best interests of the child and avoids bureaucratic delays. This is essential for the well-being of the child and to ameliorate the trauma experienced by the family. Coordination must begin immediately to develop and preserve information about family relationships and prevent long-term separation.
- Engage non-governmental actors in efforts to protect children and families immediately – In moments of crisis, governmental coordination with non-governmental actors often occurs late or does not occur at all in the name of efficiency or because officials may be unaware of available expertise and resources. Times like these demonstrate the importance of streamlining and enhancing coordination. The United States and other governments seeking to protect those fleeing Afghanistan should coordinate with international organizations, civil society organizations, and community-level groups to provide holistic support services for Afghan refugees. Coordination will ensure that evacuees, including children and families, can efficiently access critical services—from medical and mental health support to assistance with housing and basic needs—and that they can continually and consistently access that assistance throughout the protection process. In the United States, the Biden Administration and Congress should harness the power of existing resources and provide whatever funding is necessary to support these efforts at every level, including legal services.
- Adopt best practices for coordinating the protection of children throughout the U.S. immigration process, including family reunification and temporary or permanent placements – The way in which unaccompanied children are received and cared for bears significant and lasting consequences not only for children’s well-being but the success of the government’s efforts to reunify them with family members from whom they have been separated. It is critical that the government embrace a cross-agency approach and actively involve nonprofit organizations and international humanitarian agencies with expertise with children and emergency response to ensure best practices for protecting children are always used from the outset. To this end, we offer the following recommendations:
- Revive and enhance uniform coordination efforts across the government, to include a coordinator on issues facing unaccompanied children. This coordinator should have the authority to resolve conflicts across agencies and to carry out robust engagement with the public.
- Immediately place child welfare experts at all ports of entry to ensure the appropriate reception and screening of Afghan children.
- The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) should place staff at airports and military bases that are receiving Afghan evacuees. The ORR staff can then identify the best placement in the ORR shelter system for a child, and in cases where Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or ORR suspects that a child may be traveling with a non-parent family member, they can release the child to the care of the appropriate sponsor. This allows children to remain with family members can provide appropriate care, while the children also retain their legal status as unaccompanied children under U.S. law. ORR can also then ensure those children are immediately placed in the Unaccompanied Child Portal so their cases can be tracked to ensure that none fall through the cracks as they are released from government custody.
- ORR should refer all unaccompanied Afghan children for the appointment of child advocates who can assess, make recommendations regarding, and advocate for the child’s best interests.
- ORR should work closely with qualified international organizations and domestic NGOs to conduct tracing and support reunification for any child who has been separated from their family—even if that family has been relocated to another country. Careful documentation and recordkeeping are essential to facilitate reunification and to ensure that children can communicate with family members, consistent with procedures that protect the best interests and security of the child. As the reunification process takes place, however, ORR should continue to ensure that the child is able to access all the rights and protections provided by unaccompanied child status while in the United States, including access to counsel and communication with family.
- All agencies should coordinate to prioritize and preserve family unity/relationships for separated children and families whenever possible, including in the identification of temporary care and resettlement support while efforts to conduct family tracing and/or reunify child with a parent or guardian may be ongoing.
- Ensure that best-interests assessments conducted in third countries consider how relocation of a child to the United States might impact their long-term protection and family reunification.
- All interactions with children, including placement assessments, should be conducted in a manner that is sensitive to the child’s culture, religion, and language, and culture and customs of the Afghan people.
- Ensure access to appropriate services at all stages of the child’s journey
- Afghan children and families arriving in the United States have experienced extreme trauma in their flight from harm. Humanitarian reception and response is imperative. This includes providing critical support services in the immediate term and throughout the resettlement or reunification process. To that end, we urge the government to provide all families, including children, with immediate access to legal representation and social services to ensure legal protection, provide assistance in processing trauma, and help children and families as they rebuild their lives outside of Afghanistan.
- To ensure appropriate treatment and support at the earliest point possible, all Afghan unaccompanied children arriving in the United States should be deemed eligible for the services provided by ORR to Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) children. These services should be provided without delay or time limitation while experts conduct family tracing, assess the child’s needs, and identify protection solutions that are in the child’s best interests, which may include consideration of international reunification with family members abroad. To ensure that URM eligibility during this interim period does not bar children from overseas protection options still under evaluation, the administration could declare all unaccompanied Afghan children eligible on a provisional basis or consider issuing interim assistance letters (eligibility letters) immediately to all such children. This could mirror the protective framework and supports available to child victims of trafficking.
- Upon release from ORR custody to sponsors or reunification with family members, children should be provided with ongoing post-release services, including access to legal counsel.
- Protect children’s legal interests
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, children determined to be unaccompanied have specific legal rights relating to immigration benefits, custody and placement, and access to services. It should be made clear to all government officials that unaccompanied child status and parolee status are complementary designations that provide humanitarian protection to children in need. Confusion over the interplay of these legal determinations could lead to mistakes in handling cases, which could result in delays or loss of rights for a child.
- DHS and HHS should issue clear guidance delineating the rights of unaccompanied children who have been paroled into the United States from Afghanistan. This guidance should address all stages of the immigration process so that government officials, legal representatives, family members and the public have a consistent understanding of the framework for processing and protecting these children.
- Standardize the process for paroling Afghan unaccompanied children based on clear criteria for parole. To the extent that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has issued Notices to Appear (NTAs) placing unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings, such notices should be cancelled. Children and other evacuees should be processed with due regard for their vulnerability and eligibility for refugee status. All NTAs that have been issued deeming the child a “public charge” should be canceled.
- Given the extraordinary humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, and the overwhelming evidence that many individuals, including those perceived as opposed to the Taliban are subject to persecution, asylum and refugee processing should be streamlined for Afghan unaccompanied children. DHS should consider waiving in-person interviews for children under the age of 18 and should adopt a presumption that the individual meets the definition of refugee if paroled or otherwise admitted in response to the Afghan crisis. Similarly, processing of any Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) or other visa applications should be streamlined.
- The administration should significantly increase the annual Presidential Determination, allowing for future resettlement of Afghan and other refugees, including unaccompanied refugee children.
- Conduct systematic self-audits and after-action analysis – The urgent evacuation of Afghan nationals and the resultant and ongoing confusion about processing, legal status, and placement has revealed numerous cracks and weaknesses in the system designed to protect unaccompanied children. Even as the government works to improve and resolve differences, it should engage in a robust critique of its performance. The USCIS Ombudsman or DHS Inspector General should proactively assess the process and make recommendations for improvement that would assist all unaccompanied children.
“The Biden Administration has an unprecedented opportunity, and a humanitarian imperative, to develop policies and solutions that extend immediate protection to people fleeing harm while also addressing systemic barriers that continue to deny children and others in desperate need access to due process and full protection,” Young concluded. “It should not delay in implementing these recommendations.”
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