Building a Europe for and with children

Migrant children should not be detained

Strasbourg, 08.02.2011 - Thousands of migrant children are detained every year in Europe. They are forcibly brought to detention centres in a number of countries, in most cases with a view of preparing for their deportation. There they have to endure prison-like conditions, in spite of not having committed any crime, says the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, in his latest Human Rights Comment published.

Some of these children have arrived with their parents, others are on their own, unaccompanied. In both cases they experience fear and uncertainty while in detention.

In most cases they are also deprived of education and are sometimes also exposed to abuse and violence.

It is established that detention and restriction of movement have particularly negative psychological effects on minors, and these effects are compounded by time. Unaccompanied migrant children are especially vulnerable.

Detention violates the child’s right to health

Governments in the host countries need to rethink their approach; the present policy is not humane. It is also in conflict with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that detention “is to be used only as a measure of last resort, for the shortest appropriate period of time and taking into account the best interests of the child as a primary consideration.”

No precise statistics is available on how many children are kept in detention in Europe today. A more comprehensive mapping is needed. However, an analysis of reports from UN agencies and reputable non-governmental organisations indicates that migrant children continue to be routinely detained, in spite of recommendations from the Council of Europe and the European Union.

One example is France where 368 migrant children were detained in 2009. They were kept with family members, but still these children – with an average age of eight years – were confronted with the negative sides of detention and an atmosphere of deep anxiety.

While European states provide a minimum age at which a child could be detained for a criminal offence such rules do not exist in migration cases. The consequence is that even families with very small children have been placed in detention centres.

Governments should change approach

When children are detained with their parents, authorities have justified this with the argument that it is in the best interest of the children not to be separated from their parents. However, the humane solution would be to spare the whole family, including the caregivers, from detention in order to give the child the necessary support and security. Detaining parents while their children remain free cannot be an appropriate alternative.

Alternative solutions exist. During a visit to Belgium I saw apartments where families due to be returned were accommodated. They had the possibility to leave the flat and live in an almost ordinary life; the parents had the possibility to organise the return and the children were able to attend school in the meantime.

Similar humane approaches are needed for the unaccompanied minors. They should benefit from smaller accommodation facilities, with more privacy and better care, and with access to education. This would also be in line with the recent EU Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors.

Rethink in Britain should encourage others to change policy

There are a few positive signs in the darkness. While the United Kingdom has had one of the worst records in Europe - with some two thousand children detained each year for the purpose of immigration control – the new government has decided to put an end to these detentions. So far, the decision is only partly implemented but the number of children detained has already diminished significantly. This is good news.

Putting an end to the detention of asylum-seeking or migrant children should be seen as the first and important step towards minimising the use of detention in all immigration cases, including of adults.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed concern last year - Resolution 1707 (2010) - on the increased use of detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants. It stated that detention must be used only as a last resort: On unaccompanied minors and others vulnerable the Assembly was crystal clear: they should never be detained. Governments should respond