Distinguished members of the Congress,
Dear Ms VAIKLA and Mr VÖHRINGER,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for this invitation to join your debate on the reception of refugee women and children in Europe’s cities and regions.
Congratulations for putting this topic high on your agenda. Cities and regions are indeed in the frontline of welcoming refugees. They ensure their appropriate reception and integration, they address their basic needs and they assist them in rebuilding their daily lives in a responsive environment.
Your role is crucial, and I am myself a first-hand witness of the tremendous efforts local authorities have been putting in place to handle the large influx of people coming from Ukraine.
Following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on 24 February, I carried out in May and June fact-finding missions to some of the most affected countries: to the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, to Poland and to the Republic of Moldova. During these visits, I was able to witness the situation on the ground, discuss with relevant stakeholders and provide targeted recommendations on how the Council of Europe could provide support in the current situation.
My focus was first and foremost the situation of women and children – including unaccompanied and separated children – who represent the great majority of people who had to leave Ukraine. I also considered the situation of the elderly, of persons with disabilities and of other persons in a vulnerable situation.
There is a need to protect women and children from all forms of violence, from human trafficking, abuse and exploitation. Their access to healthcare, including psychological support, to housing, to education, to linguistic integration and, ultimately, their inclusion into host societies have to be ensured.
Local and regional authorities play a unique role in this regard. YOU are the first point of contact for people fleeing crises and conflicts.
Here are some examples from the countries I visited that I would like to share with you:
- In Slovakia, I was impressed by the work done by the Mayor of the Lamač District in providing shelter and accommodation to refugee women and children by reorganising unoccupied houses with gardens.
- In the Czech Republic, the local authorities play an important role in the efficient running of reception centres. In Prague, 1000 persons a day were able to swiftly submit applications, register with the public health insurance system and consult social services in case of special needs.
- In Poland, central and local level governments in Stalowa Wola, a reception centre for children, set up a system providing assistance to separated families and unaccompanied children. Children were provided with protection, often in urgent conditions, so as to secure their best interests and immediate needs.
- Finally, mobile Orange Safe Spaces were established in Moldova to reach out to women from Ukraine and Moldova so that they can have equal access to information, support, counselling and services regarding gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health.
I know that such good practices also exist in other countries, and I will -in the coming months- visit some more.
My objective is to ensure the follow-up of the fact-finding mission reports. The aim is to support the authorities in ensuring a better protection of the people from Ukraine based on the Council of Europe standards and expertise. This can only be done by working in synergy within the organization and by cooperating and complementing our work with other international organisations, notably with UNHCR.
It is in this spirit that we are putting in place in Moldova a cooperation project entitled “Strengthening the human rights protection of refugees and migrants in the Republic of Moldova”. The project aims to provide tailor-made support in addressing the needs of refugees and migrants, in light of the findings of my visit, as well as to build resilient migration, asylum and reception systems. A component of the project will be dedicated to facilitating access to information and support services at the local level. This will, for example, include enhancing the knowledge of local actors, including on how to identify trauma and to provide psychological aid to refugees with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Other actions in the countries I mentioned are also underway.
These activities are carried out in the framework of the COE Action Plan on Protecting Vulnerable Persons in the Context of Migration and Asylum in Europe (2021-2025), adopted by the Committee of Ministers in May 2021
The determination of the specific needs of refugee women and children who face situations of particular vulnerability is therefore crucial in order to provide them with adequate and adapted services.
This is the reason why I wish to highlight a recently adopted Committee of Ministers Recommendation on protecting the rights of migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls and which is fully complementary to your Resolution. They both provide a full guide for our member states - from central governments to regional and local authorities - on how to ensure the protection of the rights of women and children.
The CM Recommendation covers horizontal issues such as non-discrimination, access to justice, data collection, information and empowerment. It addresses rights in transit and reception facilities, access to services, employment, integration, residence permit and family reunion. I would like to underline that both instruments must be applied together to ensure that the rights of migrant and refugee women and children are upheld in the European continent.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This is one example that can be used in the current circumstances. As you know, we have many other instruments and tools. The challenge is to disseminate, promote and implement them.
For this, we need to build partnerships at the local level, involving local and regional authorities and NGOs.
Municipalities and regions play a key role in raising people’s awareness and in changing attitudes and behaviours. This entails the obligation to comply with human rights obligations and ensure the respect of principles of non-discrimination, equality, and democratic participation. Your work at the Congress is of paramount importance.
I am fully aware of the extreme pressure and difficult conditions under which local and regional authorities are called to deliver and respond to the needs of migrants and refugees, while continuing to service their own citizens. This is not an easy task, especially given the limited resources at your disposal and the numerous – and sometimes conflicting - priorities.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We must not forget the non-Ukrainian refugees. This includes third-country nationals fleeing Ukraine, as well as refugees from other countries. All people seeking protection in our member states are entitled to the rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Let me conclude by saying that local and regional authorities in Europe should not be left alone in ensuring the protection of refugee women and children. The involvement of all relevant stakeholders is needed. I have taken good note of your commitment, as expressed in the Resolution to support “the protection of women and children refugees and asylum-seekers” through “co-operation activities within the framework of the relevant Council of Europe Action Plans”. I believe that both your Resolution and Recommendation on the reception of refugee women and children in Europe’s cities and regions will be an extremely valuable tool for all of us in achieving better protection of persons in a vulnerable situation in the context of migration and asylum in Europe.
Thank you for your attention!