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A drawing of an unaccompanied foreign minor walking alone through an asylum camp. On one side is a human trafficker trying to get him into a car, on the other a policeman with a dog in an aggressive attitude.

Freedom of Movement, the Right to Education, and Personal Development: Experiences and Perceptions of Unaccompanied Foreign Children in Relation to Camps. A Fieldwork Study from the Asylum Centre of Bogovađa, Serbia

Author: Simona Guarini (2023)

Simona Guarini holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. Currently she is working in the Centre Za Azil Bogovađa, as part of the project Caschi Bianchi “Accogliere, proteggere, integrare la popolazione migrante”, promoted by Caritas Italiana. This In Focus article is an excerpt from her master thesis discussed, in October 2021, under the supervision of Prof. Antoine Pierre Georges Meyer. 


The purpose of the present article is to analyse experiences and perceptions related to the more or less prolonged permanence of unaccompanied minors (UAMs) in refugee and asylum seekers camps. In this peculiar case, it concerns UAMs travelling along the Balkan Routes which, although having been officially closed in 2016 with the signature of the EU-Turkey Agreement, continue to witness migratory moments all along. The aim is to assess whether or not the legal recognition of the human rights to freedom of movement, to personal development and to education results in the factual protection and fulfilment of such rights within asylum centres. The article relies on a qualitative analysis carried out through in-depth interviews in the Centar Za Azil Bogovađa, Serbia. Answers provided by interviewees have been analysed through the lens of experiences and perceptions concerning the right to freedom of movement within and beyond camps, their personal development in the context of a double transition - being, on the one hand, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the one from one’s country of origin to a country of refuge in EU on the other hand- and their right to education in relation to access to formal or informal educational opportunities while accommodated therein.

Figure1. The sample’s main features considering participants’ country of origin, age distribution and crossed countries before entering the Serbian territory.

Refugees and asylum seekers’ camps: the ordinary exceptionality 

Migration, in its broad interpretation, has constituted a natural and relentless phenomenon since immemorial time and, depending on different circumstances characterising specific geographical areas throughout the centuries, there have been increases or decreases in numbers of displaced people all around the world.  Conflicts, widespread violence, human rights violations, food insecurity and material deprivation, natural disasters, and desire to seek safety in other countries account as push factors: nevertheless, when considering the root causes and consequences of migration, it is relevant to identify a balance between push and pull factors determining trajectories and final outcomes of the entire displacement process. In contemporary times, routes undertaken by people on the move are becoming increasingly arduous: borders’ closure and increased border police presence, together with the necessity to rely on smuggling networks, are among those factors contributing to exposing displaced people to more dangerous and money and time-consuming trajectories. Moreover, it is non-negligible the role held by governments’ adopted policies in shaping migrants’ displacement process like, inter alia, the policy of encampment.It defines the decision of transit and host countries to accommodate refugees and asylum seekers in camps and reception centres. The rationale behind the establishment of formal camp settlements has to be found in the need to provide humanitarian assistance to people forced to flee their home countries, in a context of  emergencies, as formalised in the definition of refugee campprovided by UNHCR. It goes without saying that camps represent exceptional and temporary measures, which should be dismissed once normality has been restored, to then accompany refugees through a process of personal, social and economic integration in the country of refuge. However, often the temporariness has been/is being overcome by the choice to prolongedly keep refugees and asylum seekers therein, giving rise to several concerns and criticisms when it comes to the effective protection of migrants’ and refugees’ human rights in vulnerable contexts.

Temporariness, however, is not the only aspect to consider when discussing the role and purposes of camps:  spatiality too, as a matter of fact, represents a controversial aspect of the whole issue. Camps are usually located far from cities or city centres, often surrounded by fences or woods, therefore representing a clear demarcation between the inside and the outside, between “we” and “they”, identifying the social position of people residing in camp as a simultaneous inclusion and exclusion in the host society and giving rise to a so-called “space of exception”. Doubtlessly, the establishment of camps in remote areas of hosting countries, or close to the borders, has implications on both sides: on the one hand, for refugees and asylum seekers it can limit the enjoyment of one’s rights since their protection and fulfilment often results in porous practices in contexts considered to be exceptional and temporary; on the other hand, for host countries, the choice to keep refugees and asylum seekers in camps and camp settlements far from city centres represents a way to pretend they do not exist, and to exercise a more precise control over whom is often perceived as a threat. But, as scholars argue, what emerges is a “contradictory space”: camps are an instrument voluntarily employed to make refugees invisible within the society, but eventually they appear highly visible since they become the core of specifically identified humanitarian programmes carried out in what is also considered to be a humanitarian and social space, and subjected to an international regime of care. 

The right to freedom of movement: between legal provisions and UAMs’ experiences and perceptions

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. 2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), considered the lighthouse of Human Rights Law, is  the first international non-legally binding document in which a definition of “freedom of movement” can be  traced (art.13). However, the non-legally binding character of the Declaration prompted further developments in both Human Rights Law and Refugee Law, to the extent that such right is now recognised in a wide range of instruments at all levels of governance. 

Participants were asked to express their personal understanding of this right on the basis of experiences and perceptions in relation to the possibility of moving beyond camps according to the authorities-established rules and the transited camps’ remote locations. Generally speaking, what emerged is that the rules enforced in transited facilities while on the route were not perceived as an obstacle to one’s enjoyment of freedom of movement; rather, they were perceived as a protective factor from the dangers lurking outside camps, particularly smugglers, on whom UAMs often rely in order to reach their destination. The remoteness of the areas in which facilities are located does not seem to represent, per se, an obstacle. Nevertheless, the need to rely on public or private transport to reach the closest cities or city centres, together with the presence of police in the streets, have been indicated as two factors hampering the full enjoyment of the right in question.  Almost the entirety of participants had at least a direct or indirect experience of denied access on buses, requests for a higher amount of money from taxi drivers; and also instances of participants forced to go back to the camps after encountering the police were substantial.

The fundamental right to education between human rights and refugee law, practice, UAMs’ experiences and perceptions

When it comes to children on the move – whether accompanied or unaccompanied – the effect of displacement also needs to be interpreted in the light of education deprivation, which, inevitably, marks their future life perspectives. The UNHCR prominently highlighted that the right to education is a human right that should be cultivated in any situation, thus also in circumstances of crisis, especially considering the pivotal role that education might play in boosting and facilitating integration in the destination countries.  Once again, the UDHR was a lighthouse in shaping the right to education, which was then formalised in a wide range of internationally legally binding documents, such as, inter alia, the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, the ICCPR, UNCRC, CADE. 

Participants were asked to objectively define the formal/informal educational opportunities - if any - offered in camps they transited since the beginning of their migratory path, and to subjectively describe their perceptions in the light of both the short-term and the long-term impact on their life when it comes to education deprivation. What emerged is a dichotomy between the copious legal provisions and their practical implementation. Furthermore, participants’ perceptions appear conflicting when linking them to short-term and long-term impact on their life. On the one hand, most interviewees did not consider the lack  of educational opportunities while on the route as a reason of concern for their present: focus on the  organization of further moves to reach one’s destination, together with hopes of being enrolled and catch-up once settled in the  destination country are the two main explanations behind this trend; on the other hand, the almost totality of  participants expressed concerns for the impact on their future, explained in terms of potential difficulty in  finding a high-skilled job, together with a perceived obstacle in continuing learning as adults, and relative vanishing dream for one’s future. Although, in general, education does not appear as a push-factor for leaving one’s country, it might play an important role in deciding one’s destination country. When displacement starts, destination is often unplanned, and determined while on the route on the basis of two main drivers: employment and education. 

Personal growth and development in the midst of a double transition: UAMs’ perceptions in relation to permanence in camps

In the context of displacement, adolescents live a sort of double transition: on the one hand, a transition to  adulthood, seeking to shape their identity, beliefs, projects, coping mechanisms; on the other hand, a life-changing transition to a new reality outside the country of origin, entering a new space with its own rules,  temporal and spatial constructions, and in which they need to find their own space for integration.

What emerged from interviewees’ answers is that permanence in camps is mainly perceived as a negative factor, hindering a process of self-development on which what weights the most is a sense of loneliness and distance from families, together with a lack of access to education and the condition of joblessness. When it comes to the role of field workers, although recognizing the value of the material and practical assistance, the majority of participants declared not to perceive support and substantial help in terms of growth and personal development. However, considering camps’ location in remote areas in relation to personal development, the impact on respondents appears positive. Not only do they perceive it as a protection factor from smugglers - on whom they need to rely in order to continue their path towards Northern and Central Europe - but also from local communities, in terms of avoiding the emergence of any clash or discriminatory episodes. 


The purpose of the research springs from the need to understand, through the words of UAMs themselves, whether or not the policy of accommodation of migrant children in camps provides a human and rights-centred response to people on the move. Based on participants’ experiences and perceptions, what could be said is that camps are configured as non-child-friendly environments. Although the material humanitarian assistance provided within facilities could not be called into question – declined in terms of access to shelter, food, water and healthcare –, when it comes to effective protection and fulfilment of some fundamental rights, the discourse seems to lose effectiveness. If between legal provisions and available practice concerning the right to freedom of movement beyond camps a certain coherence can be recalled, the same cannot be said when it comes to the right to education. Likewise, in relation to the personal development of adolescents on the move when accommodated in reception centres: it is fundamental not to underestimate and neglect the growth and development process they continue to go through, which should be the core of the identification of child-oriented policies and relative practices, and not further hampered than what the displacement process already does per sé. As a consequence, particular attention should be devoted to the identification of a safe and interest-triggering environment, allowing children to build and shape their personality, beliefs, and future projects, and to live – even if for a short time – in a context of safety and calmness. What emerges from UAMs’ perceptions, instead, is the identification of camps as a sterile environment within which they are compelled to spend time while organizing the consequent moves of their migratory path, which will – hopefully – lead them to their destination. Therefore, the identification of projects and policies based on a children’s rights-based approach should start from considering UAMs in this peculiar case as children first - with needs and vulnerabilities exacerbated, in the big picture, by the whole displacement process - and undocumented unaccompanied migrants eventually. As a matter of fact, what should be primarily considered is that UAMs carry what has been defined as “cumulative disadvantage: the wording is used to comprehensively address the heritage they bring with them once in the destination country,  consisting of disadvantages prior to departure and disadvantages as undocumented migrant children along the route.

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