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Who cares for young carers in Europe?

By Alhassan Hassan Published 16.09.2021

About young carers

Young carers are children and young people under 18 who provide or intend to provide care, assistance, or support to a family member or a friend, who has a chronic illness, disability, frailty or addiction. They assume a level of responsibility which would usually be associated with an adult. Despite the relevance of the phenomenon, young carers are still largely invisible to public authorities and service providers. The reasons why children become carers are manifold and include (among others) the cultural background, a sense of duty, the lack of alternative options, love and empathy for the care recipient, the lack of financial and practical resources within families. There is a continuum of children providing care, which starts with caring about (low levels of care responsibility, routine levels of caregiving and little evidence of negative outcomes) moving to taking care of (increasing care tasks and responsibilities) to caring for (high levels of care responsibility, substantial regular and significant caregiving, evidence of significant negative outcomes).

Number of young carers across Europe

Although there is currently very limited data regarding the number of young carers across Europe, some national statistics and pilot projects have helped to unveil a substantial – and yet largely unknown – population group. Unofficial data from a 2018 BBC survey revealed there are 800.000 young carers in England (opposed to the 166.000 identified by the official figures). Research projects or unofficial sources give us the following estimated numbers: in the Netherlands, young carers form 6% of the population aged 13-17, in Switzerland, 8% of children aged 10-15 years are young carers, and in Sweden 7% of children aged 14-16 years carry out substantial amounts of caring.

Why do we need to address the issue?

Young carers are unable to fully enjoy their human rights

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “Every child has the right to…”- among others- rest and leisure (Article 31), education (Articles 28 & 29), adequate standard of living (Article 27), express their views (Article 12), enjoy the highest attainable standard of health (Article 24). Young carers, just like all children, should be able to enjoy the rights to which they are entitled. Too often though, the challenges they face directly hinder that process and so the level playing field may no longer be sufficient to guarantee equal opportunities for young carers. Young carers are a particularly vulnerable group of children and should be recognised as such. They should not only benefit from the universal implementation of their rights but be subject to additional and tailored policy and support measures with a scale and intensity that is proportionate to their level of disadvantage. This is in line with the international human rights law, which requires governments to adopt affirmative actions in fulfilling their obligations to respect the equality principle. It can be argued that the lack of positive actions from States to support young carers is a failure to protect and promote their rights.

Supporting young carers makes economic sense

Young carers have been identified as a population group at higher risk of becoming “NEET” (Not in Education, Employment or Training), often as a result of challenges in obtaining relevant qualifications. They often face barriers in relation to school and further education: they may have punctuality issues, experience absenteeism and ultimately, be forced to drop out of education. Similarly, they may struggle to combine paid employment with their caring responsibilities. Young people with only lower secondary education or less are more often affected by unemployment, are more likely to depend on social benefits and have a higher risk of social exclusion. Their lifetime earnings, well-being and health are negatively impacted, as well as their participation in democratic processes. In addition to the individual costs, early school leaving hampers economic and social development and is a serious obstacle to the European Union’s goal of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. That is explicitly recognised by the Europe 2020 strategy, which includes the target of reducing the EU average rate of early school leavers to under 10%. Moreover, poor mental health is a cost for societies. At international level, there is growing recognition of the importance of early intervention and prevention to avoid poor health outcomes. As stressed by the World Health Organisation, promoting and protecting children and adolescents’ health brings benefits not just to their health, both in the short and the long term, it also contributes to economies and society, with healthy (young) adults able to make greater contributions to the workforce, their families, communities and society as a whole. Furthermore, investing in young people is a social investment. As recognised by the EU in the social investment package, through early intervention, socio-economic inequalities can be tackled at the roots, the cycle of disadvantages can be broken and equality of opportunity can thus be promoted.


IDENTIFY  It’s important for young carers to be noticed, rather than having to reach out themselves. Here the education and youth sectors as well as health and social care professionals, employers and families all have a leading role to play. 

SUPPORT  Once young carers have been identified, there has to be a system of support in place. Otherwise, without proper services in place, the identification can feel meaningless at best, and harmful at worse! 

LISTEN  Finally, no policy or practice that concerns and impacts on young carers should be developed without them. Young carers should be invited to co-produce all initiatives that concern them.

About the author

I'm Alhassan Hassan, a biomedical engineer with an interest in digital health and informal care. I'm currently a PhD candidate at Marche Polytechnic University.
Want to connect? Send me an email:

Recommended reading
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