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Unaccompanied foreign minors in Spain - Statistics & Facts

Among the migratory movements towards Spanish territory there is a particular phenomenon that has become a topic of heated debate in the Mediterranean country: the unaccompanied foreign minors. They are often referred to as MENAS (acronym for the Spanish term Menores Extranjeros no Acompañados), an expression which is occasionally used in a derogatory manner. These are children bellow the age of 18 who have entered the country without the company of any responsible adult.

There were 9,030 children registered as unaccompanied foreign minors in Spain in 2020, almost double the number registered five years earlier. They represented less than a fifth of the total number of children under the supervision of the national child protection system . Moreover, less than two percent of these minors are living with foster families, due mainly to the bureaucratic complexity of the process to foster an unaccompanied child and the fact that most of these minors are close to the legal age when they arrive at the country (15-17 years), an age at which families are less willing to become custodians, regardless of the nationality of the child.

A perilous journey

As most of the irregular migration coming into Spain from Africa, the main points of entry for these minors are the Canary Islands, Andalusia, Ceuta, and Melilla. Although Morocco is the most common country of origin, many of these children come from nations such as Mali, Senegal, or Guinea. Therefore, they need to fend for themselves while crossing through several countries in journeys that may last months or even years until they reach any of these entry points.

The Canary Islands have become an increasingly popular route of entry in recent years for irregular migrants, including minors. This is, by far, the deadliest route to Spanish territory; in 2020 alone, 488 people lost their lives trying to reach the Canary Islands in precarious small boats.

The autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla are located in Northern Africa, and are, consequently, attractive and safer points of entry, which is done either by sneaking through the border crossing or jumping the border fences which separate these cities from Morocco. Once under the protection of the Spanish State, many of the minors are transferred to centers located in other autonomous communities. Nevertheless, children's services in these cities struggle to cope with the unbalanced distribution of foreign children across Spanish territory. For example, in Melilla, 92 percent of children and teenagers under the supervision of the child protection system in 2020 were unaccompanied foreign minors. In the case of Ceuta, 53 percent were unacompanied foreign minors.

Problems never cease

Unfortunately, problems do not end after reaching Spanish territory. Reports about the poor conditions of the centers where the minors are sheltered are common, prompting some of them to run away from such institutions. However, others are known to run away with the intention of joining relatives living in other European countries. Foreign children also face xenophobia and discrimination, having become a frequent topic of discussion among conservative media and political parties.

Lastly, they are forced to become independent as soon as they reach the legal age. Before the 2021 changes of immigration legislation, young migrants encountered many legal barriers preventing them from living and working legally in Spain. Despite having a residency permit, in order to obtain a work permit they were required either have a job offer of a full-time contract or have up to 2,000 euros a month to support themselves without public aid — which was more than twice the minimum wage. The legal changes made obtaining residency and work permits considerably easier and faster, but becoming independent at the age of 18 in a country which still struggles with racism and where youth unemployment exceeds 30 percent proves to be challenging.

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