Spain’s invisible children: Why 200 Romanian minors live in the country without papers

The situation means they cannot receive disability aid, take part in exchange programs or even sign up to sports clubs

Justi Carretero holds her foster daughter in her house in Guadalajara.
Justi Carretero holds her foster daughter in her house in Guadalajara.Julián Rojas
María Sosa Troya

The little girl has a severe disability but cannot access financial assistance. Her foster mother Justi Carretero, 57, was told “she doesn’t exist in the system” when she asked for help. The child was born in Spain but her biological Romanian parents did not register her at the consulate.

More than 200 minors of Romanian origin under state guardianship lack documentation

Spanish authorities assumed legal guardianship of her and she was put in the care of Carretero’s family, where she’s been for the past four years. Officially, she is not Romanian or Spanish. She has no nationality papers – all she has is her birth certificate.

More than 200 minors of Romanian origin under state guardianship, either in residential centers or with foster families, do not have proper documentation, according to sources from the Spanish Health Ministry. In some case, they were born in Spain but not registered at the consulate, which is why they have not been given nationality, and in others, they arrived in Spain with papers but did not renew them. These children cannot travel, register with sports teams or receive any kind of social benefits.

In Spain, more than 17,000 minors under state care lived in residential centers in 2017. Another 19,000 – 1,800 of whom were foreigners – lived with foster families.

While minors from other different countries are also without papers, it is a more difficult problem for Romanian children, say ministry sources. On Tuesday, representatives from the Family and Infancy Services Department (a branch of the Health Ministry) met with Romanian authorities in Bucharest to try to solve the issue. If Romania does not come up with a solution, Spain will have to: “The goal is for these children to have access to social welfare resources,” say ministry sources.

Equal treatment

“Romania has to assume its responsibility and allow these minors to be registered and receive passports. At the consulate they don’t directly say no, but they ask for papers over and over again. It takes forever,” says Carretero, who lives in a town in the province of Guadalajara, in the Castilla-La Mancha region north of Madrid. Her foster daughter has motor, sensory and mental disabilities. “We spend between €400 and €600 a month on therapy, but we cannot receive disability assistance. These minors must grow up with equal conditions,” she says.

No one is taking responsibility. They are invisible children Dionisia Segovia, 59, foster mother

Carretero is the head of the Spanish Foster Family Association (Fades), a group that defends the rights of foster families and children. “Romania has to either recognize these children or refuse to. If nothing happens, the children remain in no man’s land,” she says. “We also criticize Spain for not doing anything. It is the country that protects these children because they are under its guardianship. There has to be a solution.”

“Spanish authorities cannot demand anything from Romanian authorities, but they can ask for documentation because they are the children’s legal guardians,” says Beatriz Román, an expert lawyer on the subject who has managed to regularize two such cases. “A 2003 EU regulation establishes how a country exercising the guardianship of a minor must register them in their country of origin. And the manner in which it should carry out the request for documents. This certification is valid and administrative. It can take a long time to receive, but it can’t be denied or Spain could file a complaint.”

According to ministry sources, the key to the problem is in the EU regulation. Article 21 establishes that when an authority of an EU member state issues a resolution, for example guardianship, it must be recognized and applied by the rest of the countries. However, ministry sources point out that Romania interprets the regulation in a different way in reference to Article 28, and demands Spain certify guardianship papers in Romania, a complex procedure that requires having lawyers in the country.

But sources at the consular department of the Romanian embassy believe this isn’t a problem. They argue they are willing to resolve these situations and “repatriate minors,” regardless of the amount of time they’ve spent in Spain. They try to look for family members in Romania, and if the conditions are favorable and the family willing, send the child back there. If this is not possible, which is most often the case, Romania can provide provisional papers for the minors. According to these sources, such cases are usually resolved in a few months.

Requesting citizenship

If a foreign country fails to document a minor, Spanish authorities can normalize their status, says Román. “A minor who’s spent two years under state care is eligible for Spanish citizenship if they have at least one year of legal and uninterrupted residency. Minors who were born in Spain to foreign parents and have lived in the country for a year are also eligible for citizenship,” she says.

Between 2014 and 2018, 580 minors (not only of Romanian origin) under state guardianship applied for citizenship. According to the Justice Ministry, it was granted to 144.

We criticize Spain for not doing anything. It is the country that protects these children because they are under its guardianship Justi Carretero, 57, foster mother

The problem made headlines two years ago when a group of foster mothers in Madrid began to petition for the children’s rights. By holding meetings and obtaining signatures, the women managed to normalize the situation of a dozen children, says Carmen Parra, a foster mother of two children of Romanian origin who helped spearhead the protest. “Now my child has a DNI [Spanish national identity document]. I remember one day he asked me, ‘Mom, am I Spanish?’ and the lawyer who was with us told him that he had always been,” she says.

Cases like these provide hope for families struggling to be treated equally. “The eldest tell me they feel like second-class citizens. One is very good at languages, but can’t participate in a school-exchange program because they can’t travel,” explains one foster mother who asked to remain anonymous. “Another one has a disability, but cannot receive any financial aid for speech therapy because there is no way to fill out the form.”

Dionisia Segovia, 59, who lives in Castilla-La Mancha, has an adolescent foster daughter of Romanian origin. “It’s a small group of minors and no one is taking responsibility. They are invisible children. When my daughter leaves town, she always asks me, ‘What if they take away my documentation, what do I do?’ and I tell her to call me,” she says. “They see themselves as to blame. All they want to be is normal, like everyone else.”

“At 18, I had to leave the center without papers”

"When I turned 18, I didn't feel like starting from zero. I had to leave the center without papers," explains one youth, now 21, who asked to remain anonymous. This is the harsh reality for the foreign children who do not manage to regularize their situation before turning 18, which is when they are no longer under the state's protection.

The young man came to Spain from Romania with his family when he was young. He had a passport but his parents failed to renew it. Spanish authorities tried to regularize his papers but were unable to.

"At 18 years old I had to leave the center and I went to live in an apartment with other boys who had the same problem as I did. I wanted to work but I couldn't because I didn't have papers," he explains. "I survived thanks to the money I had saved and earned working as a teacher.  I couldn't collect the benefits I was entitled to because I couldn't open a savings account. "

The young man spent four months at the Romanian consulate trying to regularize his papers. "It was awful. I had to miss class, go from one place to another... all the while surviving as well as I could," he says. Now, with his documentation in order, he dreams of obtaining citizenship. "I've been in business for two years. I feel Spanish. I've lived here my whole life."

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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