The politics of migration policy across western countries are characterized by a fundamental tension between normative commitments to the protection of basic human rights and the need to control the border of their sovereign territory. Unaccompanied refugee minors (UAMs) during the 2015 refugee crisis in Germany offer a useful case for examining these dynamics because their commonly accepted claim for protection as children is complicated by their concurrent, but much more contested claim as refugees. This tension is amplified by the lack of definitional clarity regarding the rights of children and the fact that in Germany UAMs’ parallel claims fall into the jurisdiction of different bureaucratic systems: the child welfare system and the asylum system. Using Michael Lipsky’s (1980) theory of policy implementation, this poster presents an analysis of how the behaviors and decisions of street-level bureaucrats shaped the policy response to UAMs in the context of legal ambiguity, competing policy objectives and significant discretion at the front-lines of the child welfare system.
The data for this poster draws on in-depth qualitative interviews with 29 front-line workers such as administrators of the immigration authority and the child welfare department in one city in Germany. In addition, the analysis draws on extensive administrative data to contextualize front-line worker accounts as well as in-depth interviews with 26 UAMs from Syria to examine how these behaviors were experienced by refugee youth. Interviews with administrators and social workers covered professional background as well as experiences during the peak of the recent refugee crisis. Interviews with UAMs explored experiences and challenges after their arrival in Nuremberg. The interviews lasted between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours, were conducted in German or with the help of an Arabic translator, transcribed verbatim and coded using Atlas.ti.
The analysis documents how front-line workers responded to the sudden surge of newly arrived UAMs between 2015 and 2016 by delaying processing of new cases, greater reliance on desk management of new cases and a rationing of services and supports in order to cope with dramatic increase in demand for child welfare services. Although these strategies allowed for the local child welfare system to absorb large numbers of unaccompanied children, the associated costs of extended wait times and uneven services were almost exclusively borne by UAMs and seriously jeopardized their chances of reunification with their parents.
The discussion highlights the role of street-level organizations in shaping the rights of UAMs on the ground and puts these findings in context of the currently unfolding refugee crisis in Europe and the issue of family unification at the southern border in the United States.