“Children in migration should get better protection”
[06/08/07] Migrant children are one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe
today. Some of them have fled persecution or war, others have run away from
poverty and destitution. There are also those who are victims of trafficking. At
particular risk are those who are separated from their families and have no - or
only temporary - residence permits. Many of these children suffer exploitation
and abuse. Their situation is a major challenge to the humanitarian principles
Human Rights Watch recently published a critical
how the 900 unaccompanied children who arrived by boat from Africa to the Canary
Islands last year had been received. Such reports are particularly important as
there is little official data on the reality of Europe’s migrant children. In
order to formulate a wise and comprehensive policy on this issue, we need more
facts. Statistics and other relevant data are missing on almost all aspect of
the migration cycle: about those coming to the borders, who they are and what
happens to them; about those who are in the country without a permit, whether
they are in school or work and with whom they live; and about those who have
residence permits and their social situation.
Though the scope and nature of the problem is partly hidden, we know enough to
realize that the situation is serious. The lack of precise statistics and facts
is therefore no excuse for political passivity. While efforts are made to
collect data, a more energetic policy should be developed to protect the rights
of these children.
There are international norms in this area. Both the UN Convention on the Rights
of the Child and the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All
Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families give clear guidance on how the
rights of migrant children should be protected.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also adopted
recommendations on refugee children and separated migrant minors. The UN High
Commissioner for Refugees has issued guidelines to governments and also launched
a joint project together with Save the Children, entitled “Separated Children in
Such efforts are needed as the agreed rules and guidelines are not always
enforced. One reason is obviously xenophobia. There are extreme political
parties and groups promoting prejudices and fear in several European countries
today. Some of them have got a foothold in parliaments or local assemblies.
Unfortunately, some of the bigger political parties have adjusted their message
to reflect such tendencies instead of exposing them. Extremist media has also
played a negative role and disseminated stereotypes and in some cases even hate
Xenophobia and fear of xenophobia have tended to focus the migration debate on
border security – whether migrants should be let in or not – rather than on the
broader picture of migration in all its aspects. This has become worse after
11th September 2001 and the increased Islamophobia during recent years.
The consequences have also been negative for those migrants, not least the
younger ones, who already live in our societies. It is therefore particularly
unfortunate that so few politicians highlight the value of diversity and
multiculturalism in today’s world.
What should be done in concrete terms to protect and promote the rights of
migrant children? How should the norms and guidelines be implemented?
The starting point must be that migrant children are first and foremost
children. They are vulnerable and have the same rights as others. The principle
of the best interest of the child means that each child must be seen as an
individual and special consideration must be given to his or her particular
circumstances. All children should be listened to with respect.
Many migrant children have been uprooted once or twice or even more times.
Separation from earlier homes, relatives and friends can cause trauma. This
makes it even more crucial that adult support is found. Save the Children and
UNHCR have proposed that a legal guardian or representative be appointed for
each arriving separated child. These children have the right to be met with
respect and by personnel who have training and capacity to understand children.
Family reunification is an urgent need for many migrant children. Tracing of
other family members should be undertaken as a matter of priority and on a
confidential basis. No child should, however, be sent back to the country of
origin if adequate reception and care are not guaranteed.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly has recommended member States “to
facilitate the family reunification of separated children with their parents in
other member states even when parents do not have permanent residence status or
are asylum seekers, in compliance with the principle of the best interest of the
child” (Recommendation 1596).
This may be controversial in some political camps, but is fully in line with the
agreed norms on children’s rights. The right to family reunification applies to
all children. Those governments which have limited this right only to the
younger children – for instance, only to those below 15 years of age – should be
reminded about their child rights obligations.
The right to health should be given priority. Poverty and poor housing
conditions undermine health in general. Also, many migrant children have a
background of very difficult experiences which may require psychological support
– this is an area where schools have a key role not least for the detection of
problems, but also for the follow-up, which could include supportive treatment.
Considerations of health are also a strong argument against detention of
children at any stage of the migration process. It is shameful that, even in
Europe, unaccompanied children are still locked up while waiting for decisions
about their fate or before being deported.
Whatever the child’s background, the right to education is absolutely central.
Migrant children should be ensured access to compulsory education – irrespective
of their or their parents’ legal status. It is crucial that the quality of the
schooling received is guaranteed and that pupils have the possibility to learn
the majority language (while also developing their mother tongue). One of the
problems in some countries has been a lack of trained teachers who can care ably
for migrant children.
Europe cannot afford to fail our young newcomers, their fate is ours and they
have much to contribute – if given a chance. The first step is to recognize that
they have human rights.
Programme jointly established by UNHCR and Save the Children
General comment n° 6(2005) of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the
treatment of unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of
origin (UNHCR website, .pdf format)
CM/Rec(2007)9 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers to member states
on life projects for unaccompanied migrant minors
failure to protect the rights of unaccompanied migrant children in the Canary
Islands". Report by Human Rights Watch
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