Speech at the First meeting of the Ad hoc Committee for the Rights of the Child (CAHENF)

Strasbourg 29 September 2016
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Thank you Chair,

Dear CAHENF members,

One out of four persons currently seeking asylum in the European Union is a child. This makes it 800 children seeking asylum per day. Of the 1 015 718 people who arrived there by sea in 2015, 31% were children. In one Council of Europe country alone, Turkey, of the 2.75 million persons registered under temporary protection, more than half are children. It is also reported that the same country plays host to over 800,000 school-age Syrian children.

The scale is enormous. And so are the challenges involved.

One of the biggest challenges European countries are confronted with is managing the migration flows while respecting their human rights obligations. This is why migration is a Council of Europe issue par excellence.

Our Organisation has already accomplished a lot in the field of refugee and migrant rights. It has developed good standards and there are also several mechanisms to monitor them. What is clearly needed is more proactivity, better coordination inside the Council of Europe and with our international partners and better targeted assistance and advice to member states.

All these aspects figure within the terms of reference the Secretary General gave me as his Special Representative on 1 February 2016. Initially I was asked to carry out fact-finding missions; to strengthen the coordination of the relevant activities within the Council of Europe; and to establish channels with our international partners. Very soon, my terms of reference were added to, to include “ensuring a special focus on migrant and asylum-seeking children”.

The reasons for this decision became abundantly clear during all the fact-finding missions I have carried out so far. In the different sites/camps I visited in Greece, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, Turkey and northern France (in Calais and Grande-Synthe), I found children living in squalid conditions; children vainly waiting to be reunited with their parents in other Europe countries; and children not getting the benefit of any education activities for considerable periods of time. I heard about children drowning; children being subject to sexual exploitation; and children in detention.

Following my fact-finding missions, I draft reports. These reports describe the situation in the country visited, assess the country’s needs in so far as the protection of refugees and migrants is concerned and make recommendations to the Council of Europe on the kind of assistance it should be providing.

The recommendations in question pay particular attention to children’s issues. And so does the follow-up action of the Organisation, which I coordinate.

To give you some examples, in my report on Greece I urged the Council of Europe to assist it with the drafting of the bill on guardianship, which would settle a lot of unaccompanied minors’ issues. In my report to Turkey, I asked the Council of Europe to provide the authorities with expertise on how to adapt the school curriculum to cater better for Syrian children, how to deliver appropriate linguistic support to migrant children entering the Turkish education system and how to develop incentives for school attendance. I also recommended the transfer of expertise to both countries so as to develop alternatives to administrative detention for migrant minors and their families.

The problems of refugee and migrant children in the member states I have visited are of course part of a pattern. Although each country has its particularities, there are many issues that can be addressed on a more general level.

Our governments are acutely aware of this. This is why the ministers of foreign affairs who gathered in Sofia in May this year, at the end of the Bulgarian chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, decided to take concerted action. They also decided to give the question absolute priority. As a result of this most timely initiative, the Secretary General has asked me to coordinate the drafting of an action plan for the protection of unaccompanied and other migrant and refugee children across Europe. This should focus on the main challenges facing this particularly vulnerable group. To mention some of these challenges (and please bear in mind that these are just orientation points): alternatives to detention, access to education, effective guardianship and age-assessment procedures and family reunification.

The preparation of the action plan will involve all sectors of the Organisation. CAHENF has been expressly mentioned by the Secretary General as one of the most important stakeholders in this exercise.

This is one of the reasons why I am here today. To ask for your cooperation and your expert input on what the action plan should contain. One can think of standard-setting measures in areas such as age-assessment or guardianship. Or facilitating the establishment of networks among national child-protection systems. The list of initiatives to be included is open and I am sure it will be a long one.

The Secretary General intends to revert to the Committee of Ministers on this issue and submit a draft action plan in the beginning of 2017. However, this will not be the end of the matter. The action plan will need to be implemented. And in the process of implementation one will have to draw again upon the expertise of committees such as CAHENF, which could be called upon for example to draft the standards that the action plan will be envisaging or to provide expert support for the establishment of networks.

I hope that I can count on your assistance in this respect. I also hope that our dialogue will start immediately and that we will very soon come up with very concrete proposals.

I would like to thank you very much for your attention and I look forward to working with you on this most urgent matter. If we fail to act now, we risk being held to account by several generations of prospective Europeans.

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