It has been two months since I was appointed Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees. The creation of this new position was one of the Organisation’s responses to the unprecedented migration flows our continent is confronted with today. I was initially 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 the very first fact-finding mission I carried out to Greece and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. In the different sites/camps I visited, I found children living in squalid conditions; children vainly waiting to be reunited with parents in Western Europe; 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.
The authorities of our member states might be making sincere efforts to cope with the enormous challenges involved. And, as I have already stated on several occasions, Greece cannot be expected to bear, on its own, the brunt of the crisis. However, quite often they have mountains to climb. The capacity of centres for unaccompanied minors is insufficient; the age-assessment procedures are inadequate; and the systems for the appointment of guardians are broken or insensitive. Finally, although Europeans have in general shown a great degree of solidarity, there have also been sad incidents involving unbridled hatred vis-à-vis migrant and asylum-seeking children – even in the field of education.
It is obvious that our member States’ authorities need assistance in order to be able to uphold the rights of children on the move. And the Council of Europe, being the regional human-rights organisation par excellence, has a key role to play in this connection.
I am proud to say that we are ready to rise to the challenge. On March 4th our Secretary General issued a set of proposals for priority actions entitled “Protecting Children affected by the refugee crisis: a shared responsibility”.
I have been requested to present to you these proposals today in order, among other things, to get your informed feedback on how to implement them in the most effective manner.
In order of urgency, what we need to do is to:
- Prevent migrant and asylum-seeking children from falling victim to violence, abuse, exploitation and trafficking
- Make every effort to end the placement of children in immigration detention facilities
In this context let me mention that as a matter of fact, the EU-Turkey Agreement will in practice result in children spending longer periods being de facto deprived of their liberty in the hot spots, while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed and possible appeals to be heard – given that the lack of any alternatives to detention is one the structural problems of the Greek system.
- Improve age assessment procedures
- Ensure a gender dimension in dealing with migrant and asylum-seeking children
- Ensure access to education and
- Prevent the statelessness of children
These proposals are, of course, further developed in the relevant Secretary General statement. Many of the detailed ones are addressed to member States.
For example, in connection with the first point (the one about violence, abuse, exploitation and trafficking), states must (i) put in place a procedure for rapidly appointing legal guardians for unaccompanied children; (ii) provide suitable safe accommodation and adequately trained supervisors or foster parents; (iii) ensure the timely identification of victims of trafficking among such children ; and (iv) carry out registration and documentation as soon as possible after the child is identified.
And in connection with the gender-dimension point, states must (i) consider granting girls who are victims of gender-based violence independent residence status; (ii) recognise gender-based violence against girls as a form of persecution within the meaning of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and as a form of serious harm giving rise to complementary/subsidiary protection; (iii) ensure that a gender-sensitive interpretation is given when establishing refugee status; and (iv) introduce gender-sensitive procedures, guidelines and support services in the asylum process.
However, the action of the member states should also be complemented by action at the European level. This is why the titled of the set of proposals refers to “shared responsibility”.
For example, the Steering Committee for Education Policy and Practice will make sure that innovative practice related to teaching refugee and asylum-seeking children basic skills in transit and destination countries is shared. And the newly created ad hoc Committee for the Rights of the Child will make sure that good, inter-disciplinary, gender-sensitive and respectful of human-rights practices are shared in the area of age-assessment procedures.
In so far I am concerned, the set of priority proposals of the Secretary General provides that the Special Representative on Migration and Refugees will have to map the most pressing gaps in preventing migrant and asylum-seeking children from falling victims to trafficking, and to complement already existing information. To this effect, I will have to carry out, with relevant experts, a fact-finding mission. Moreover, I will have to further national asylum policies and practices compliant with the rights of the child. And most importantly, I will provide support to member states to ensure appropriate follow–up to the relevant judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and the decisions and recommendations of the monitoring mechanisms.
I recognise that this is a tall order for all of us. To succeed we do not need only political will. We also need resources. And, most importantly, we need to cooperate.
This is why today’s conference is of primordial importance. If in the course of these two days we succeed in setting a good starting basis for this cooperation, we will have already made a most significant step towards upholding the rights of children on the move. We can start by learning the lessons of the refugee crisis, as this session invites us to do. I look forward to pursuing this discussion with you. And I can assure you that what I saw in Idomeni and the border between “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and Serbia has already taught me one lesson or two, not only as a European policy-maker but also as very privileged – I came to realise – European father.