Speech at the 34th Congress Session

Strasbourg 28 March 2018
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Dear President, dear Secretary General of the Congress, dear Congress members,

Thank you for inviting me again to your plenary session. It is always an honour and privilege to address such a respectable assembly. I appeared before you exactly one year ago when you were discussing another report related to migration: the role of local and regional authorities facing migration - from reception to integration. And one of the important conclusions you made concerned migrant and refugee children, concretely that special attention should be paid to them.

And here you are with a very concrete follow up, with a very concrete and practical tool aiming to improve the situation of these children.

Some 29,000 of them entered Europe in the first ten months of 2017, joining the 360,000 who arrived in 2015-2016, and the 1.2 million already hosted in Turkey. Over 70% of arriving children were unaccompanied and separated from their families. In Italy, this figure reaches 90%.

Their situation is particularly vulnerable. I myself have seen children in detention, children who live in abominable conditions, without access to healthcare or education. For these children, the risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking is not a mere possibility. A UNICEF report made public in September 2017 revealed more than 75 per cent of migrant and refugee children trying to reach Europe via the Central Mediterranean route faced appalling levels of abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

For the Council of Europe, as the main human rights organisation on the continent, the protection of refugee and migrant children is a priority. This is reflected in the Secretary General’s focus on the situation of refugee and migrant children and in the institution in February 2016 of the mandate of the SRSG.

Since my appointment in 2016, I have visited 10 countries and met and spoken to many migrant and refugee children, including or rather the majority of them - unaccompanied.  I saw children who had become upset, angry but also apathetic. It makes these children more vulnerable.

During the missions I have met also many of your peers – local and regional representatives to discuss the challenges they encounter but also good practices they could share. I still remember inspiring meetings with the Mayors of Athens, Chios, Palermo, Harmanli, Malaga and Valencia, with the national Associations of Municipalities in different countries, and local and regional representatives e.g. in Paris, Calais, Valencia and Lampedusa.

These missions and also the meetings have been instrumental in collecting findings on main shortcomings and challenges in respect of refugee and migrant children. These shortcomings which were identified in the Thematic report on the situation of refugee and migrant children in March last year correspond to those so accurately described in the report you discuss today.  

Just to name the most flagrant ones: the proper identification of children, the assignment of effective guardianship protection, access to information and rights, the immigration detention of children, their integration as well as their transition to self-sustainable adult life.

Why is it so? Why is there often no proper identification, why does the guardianship system in most cases not work properly, why is integration often so difficult? Well, we have to look at it from a broader perspective of migration management in general.

In an ideal world we should have, without fuss, set about distributing asylum seekers to ensure that their claims could be processed quickly, returning those whose claims were unsuccessful and resettling those granted international protection to ensure a fair balance of responsibility and promote effective integration. And protect all migrant and refugee children and treat them first and foremost as children. If we look at the situation in Europe (or at least in many parts of it) today we are rather far from reaching this point.

What is the reality/tendency today?

  • Walls and fences are being erected at borders and reports of pushbacks are commonplace.
  • Conditions for asylum-seekers and refugees who manage to penetrate Europe’s defences are getting tougher.
  • Immigration detention is being used to manage migration flows.
  • Many countries are applying a more limited protection status that bestows fewer rights on recipients.
  • More and more restrictions are being imposed on family reunification.
  •  Welfare support for asylum seekers and refugees is being cut. 

One could get the impression that the purpose of all of these policies and measures is to discourage migrants and refugees from making the journey to Europe.

What is driving these developments? An upsurge in support for populist and far right parties.

These parties have made their way into mainstream politics. Expressing sentiments and adopting legislation and practices that would have caused outrage among peers only a few years ago are acceptable today.

Looked at from this perspective, this is no longer only about the human rights of migrants and refugees. It goes much deeper. It is about the very commitment of our member states to human rights protection in Europe, and the very existence of the collective responsibility that underpins this system.

Changing things at this late stage will not be easy. Much damage has already been done to the notions of compassion, tolerance and open-mindedness in Europe.

Countering the false narratives linked to migration that have been created and have now firmly taken root in the minds of an important part of the European public requires courage, engagement and honesty.

Restoring public confidence in our ability to manage migration flows needs solidarity and pragmatism. Above all, ensuring that Europe emerges from this “migration crisis” with its fundamental values intact demands united political will, integrity and the motivation to work together to find durable solutions.

The migration issue was never a crisis for Europe. The crisis is what it has come to mean for our commitment to the essential principles upon which peace and stability in Europe are based. It is late, but not too late to take a different course.

And you have a very important role to play. Concretely in two aspects.

  1. You are important opinion makers in your municipalities and regions.
  2. You are on the frontline of refugee reception, also the ones who are often called to implement integration policies and you have an important role to facilitate relations between the local and migrant communities.

It goes without saying that an honest and viable partnership with the central government is a necessary precondition for ensuring a healthy response to the challenge that mass arrivals represent for certain municipalities. And let me stress what I have mentioned here already last year: Local authorities that are starved of resources cannot discharge their responsibilities in this field. Making the relationship between central government and the municipalities work is therefore key to the management of the migration crisis. And this is especially true for the situation of migrant children.  

The Council of Europe is here to help you in your difficult and challenging task. As you may be aware and as it is also mentioned in the report, the Committee of Ministers adopted in May 2017 the Action Plan for Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe. This plan is to be implemented until 2019. It proposes a holistic approach to the protection of refugee and migrant children and engages different sectors of the Council of Europe.

The Action Plan seeks to assist member states among others with guidance and practical handbooks on child-friendly migration-related information and procedures, on-line course on refugee and migrant children for legal professionals, practical and user-friendly handbook providing guidance to authorities about how to effectively implement alternatives to immigration detention, guidelines on age-assessment and guidelines for an important cornerstone in protection of unaccompanied children – guardianship.

In terms of integration, the Action Plans proposes a multi-disciplinary approach, starting with linguistic integration, integration in mainstream education, support measures during transition to adulthood and positive media narratives. The pilot project on the evaluation of education credentials of refugees has been successfully tested and today launched its expansion to 10 countries.

I hope that many of these practical outcomes and tools we are now working on will be of use to you and will effectively help you in your daily dealing with the situation of migrant and refugee children in your municipalities and regions.

Let me end by thanking and congratulating the Rapporteur Ms. Nawel Rafik-Elmrini for an excellent report she has prepared. The report in its holistic approach contains all the necessary aspects regarding children in migration and unaccompanied ones in particular - statistics, problems, challenges but also good practices, proposals for solutions and suggestions for actions.

It would be great if you manage to implement all recommendations and actions suggested. But even if you manage to implement only some of them it will make a huge difference – for these children, of course, but also for all of us because it is my firm belief that what these children are now going through will define who they will become. And it will therefore also define, in some respects, our common future. 

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