Speech at the 10th European Forum on the Rights of the Child

Brussels 29 November 2016
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Distinguished guests,

A great deal has been said today about the challenges of and opportunities for protecting migrants and children.

Let me say a few words from the Council of Europe’s perspective and explain how we intend and will contribute to our common goal – the protection of migrant children.

As we are all heading in the same direction, it is difficult not to repeat what has already been said – I will do my best.

Let me also start with some figures, for there can never be enough figures.

Globally, one child in ten today lives in countries affected by armed conflict and more than 400 million children live in extreme poverty.  As a result, half of the world’s displaced populations are children under 18.

I suppose you all know that, in 2015, 51% of the world’s refugees were children. 30% of asylum- seekers arriving in Europe in the first half of 2016 were also children. Many are separated from their parents or travelling alone.

How to respond is a challenge for many countries. However challenges, if well-managed, can be turned into opportunities.

During the 10 months that I have been Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, I have seen many good practices and many bad examples. I have seen a lot of suffering among migrants but what I still find difficult to cope with is the tragedy of migrant children.

Since my appointment in February 2016, I have carried out several fact-finding missions to frontline countries, such as Greece, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, Turkey and Italy. I have also visited France and the United Kingdom. My objective is to identify issues in respect of which the CoE could provide assistance to ensure that our 47 member states rise to the challenges of migratory flows while fulfilling their human-rights obligations. After each mission, I present a report with relevant recommendations.

During my missions, I meet migrant children; I hear their stories and see what they are going through at their young age. After long journeys, if they are lucky, they find themselves living with strangers in containers, or simply boxes, measuring a few square metres, in a country whose language they do not understand.  In most cases, they do not have access to school; that is often a rather remote prospect.

Children in migration face big risks at each stage of their journey. They flee violence in their home countries but are exposed to many risks including violence, exploitation and smuggling along the way.

Unaccompanied children are the most vulnerable among them. They have no one to trust or to guide or protect them. They easily fall into the hands of smugglers.

When migrant children arrive at their destination after such a tough journey, they become exposed to other dangers in Europe including poor conditions of accommodation and lack of proper care and educational opportunities.

Each minute that passes without their needs being addressed risks impeding their development.

During my missions, I was able to observe the challenges that are common to all countries.  I have discussed with the SG of the Council of Europe the need to prepare a thematic report on children in migration. The purpose of the report will be to identify the main common shortcomings which make children more vulnerable.

The shortcomings and urgent needs of these children should be addressed with just one principle in mind: all children should be treated as children regardless of their citizenship, immigration status or background. Any child in need of protection must be provided with safety and proper care.

On the basis of this understanding, we will also work on a Europe-wide action plan on the protection of unaccompanied minors and other refugee and migrant children. We expect to release the thematic report in December and an action plan in early 2017.

The report and the action plan’s main objective is to make children in migration visible as, now, we sadly see that they are too often treated no differently from adults; their problems are, for the moment, being swept under the carpet.

The action plan for migrant and refugee children with special focus on unaccompanied children will directly address their problems; it will propose concrete action that the Council of Europe should take over the next 3 years, until 2019; it will also set objectives for member states.

The action plan will cover three main areas: equal access to rights, effective protection, and integration. I am happy to see that there will be a lot of common ground between the ten principles for integrated child protection systems and the action plan.

The Council of Europe has an impressive corpus of standards and has developed considerable expertise in the human rights protection of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. The main guiding principle for member states’ migration-management policies for children should be full compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

What I have observed in the countries that I have visited is, first of all, that migration-management systems are not sufficiently child friendly. One common problem is protracted temporary solutions and the absence of the child protection authorities at critical moments.  During my missions, I have observed that no child protection officer is present when children register with the migration authorities to inform them in a child-friendly language of their rights and respond to their questions and concerns. During the examination of asylum claims, migration authorities sometimes overlook the existence of child specific forms of persecution, especially when a child comes from a safe country of origin.

The right to be heard and to be informed must be guaranteed. However these rights are frequently neglected.  Children may not be able to articulate their claims to refugee status in the same way as adults and they therefore require special assistance. It is essential that a professionally qualified person should conduct an initial interview in a language the child understands.

Lack of information, which I consider as one of the greatest shortcomings and one of the biggest challenges, may result in serious limitations on other rights, one of which is family reunification.  Family separation is one of the most widespread problems in Europe today. This could be related to decisions taken by the family on how to protect their children from war or on how to make sure that they travel safely.  Whenever these children arrive in Europe, family reunification is needed to ensure their protection, safety and support so that they can start a new life in a new country.

Lately, the use of administrative detention for migrants has become routine instead of being a measure of last resort. One of the most urgent things that states should do is to put an end to the detention of children.

Both the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly have called on member states to make every effort to end the placement of children in immigration detention facilities, taking into account the best interests of the child as a primary consideration.

The case law of the European Court of Human rights has already highlighted the illegality of detention, even where the child is accompanied by a parent.  

My recommendations include developing a proper system of alternatives to detention for families and children. The Council of Europe is now working both on identifying alternatives to administrative detention, including for children, and on recommending standards for the facilities where migrants are held.

Regarding unaccompanied children, many countries face challenges in establishing appropriate age-assessment procedures and guardianship systems. The Council of Europe’s Ad hoc Committee for the Rights of the Child is now working on standards for both age-assessment procedures and legal-guardianship systems.

The best interest of the child principle should underpin national age assessment procedures. Invasive practices are, however, an issue for most countries.

Children also require special attention in terms of their care and assistance in the presentation of asylum claims.

I will never forget the moment when, during one of my missions, in a support centre I met a young widow, with a baby child, who had migrated with her brother. Because of the stress she had endured, she was no longer able to breastfeed her baby and was looking to find NGOs to help her to get milk every day to feed the baby. She was undocumented, so she could not complete the necessary registration forms.  Her brother, who was less than 10 years old, was working during the day to earn some money for the family. They were dependent on this young boy working and on any support they could get through various organisations.

The most common problem across member states of the CoE is lack of access to education, which in turn impedes children’s integration. Sadly, most families lack the necessary financial resources; they depend on their children’s work and this in turn prevents children from going to school.

It is imperative to ensure that all migrant children have access to compulsory education – irrespective of their own or their parents’ legal status.  They should also have access to quality education. As these children have been out of the education system for a while and have been traumatised during the journey, they need to be directed to the local schools as soon as possible so that they feel that things have returned to normal.  

To combat child labour and get these children back in school, it is essential that most countries provide assistance to their families.

Furthermore, most member states cannot provide the necessary pedagogical support. For example, there is no extra support to help migrant children to learn the majority language – this was found to be lacking in the municipality of Grande-Synthe.

Even when everything looks good on paper, there are invisible barriers in some countries that keep children out of the school. For example, in Turkey, migrant children do have access to schools. But in practice they might have to wait until they have been registered in the migration system to enrol. Also, in Calais, children used to live in an informal camp which had been tolerated for a long time. However there had been no attempt to enrol them in local schools. They were there but “invisible”.

All these invisible barriers need to be identified and overcome. More incentives must be put in place to increase school attendance by migrant children. What countries need are promising practices. In the first place, children’s school attendance should not become a tool for identifying irregular migrants or facilitating their arrest, detention and deportation.

Special attention should also be paid to migrant children’s right to health. Many of these children have had very difficult experiences and may require psychological support.

To secure their effective protection, we should take action to prevent migrant and asylum-seeking children from falling victims to violence, abuse, exploitation and trafficking. We know that they are exposed to great risks.

Many of the children who have arrived and continue to arrive in Europe may become victims of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. This is why the Lanzarote Committee has decided to release a report in 2017, highlighting the main challenges in this field. It will also focus on promising practices to tackle them.

Trafficking is another major risk for these children, especially those who are unaccompanied. They can fall prey to criminal networks while fleeing their home country. Rapid identification is essential for the protection of these children. The authorities must also make sure there are policies to support child victims.  Guardians are needed and efforts to trace their parents are required.

Minimum living standards in the camps would help eliminate the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation of children. To give you some examples, gender-separate sanitary facilities, lighting, lockable units as well as "child-friendly spaces" would make a huge difference for children.

Unaccompanied children are more vulnerable and at risk of becoming victims of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and trafficking than other children affected by migration. In line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, such children should be assisted in tracing their parents. At the same time, the risk of being abused or exploited in their circle of trust should be assessed.

It is crucial that all partners take proactive steps to guarantee that migrant children can enjoy their human rights. We can see the challenges facing member states; we can also see how complicated these problems are, especially when states lack the necessary capacity and good practices. It is the role of the Council of Europe to assist our member states.

Migrant children are fleeing violence and war in their countries. The slightest chance of a better future in Europe is a major motivating factor for them. In order to get to Europe, they must have overcome many more challenges that any of us could ever imagine.

What these children are going through will define who they become. It will also, in some respects, define our common future. 

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