Speech at the High-level meeting on Europe’s challenge to ensure a rights perspective for children in migration

Stockholm 24 April 2017
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Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to be speaking at the Parliament of Sweden, a country known for its traditional welcoming culture and its generous immigration policies.

During its history, Sweden has demonstrated effective leadership in helping those in need of protection and providing sanctuary to unaccompanied children. Sweden has set a good example for others.

Back in the ’70s and early ’90s, Sweden was faced with migration. Some people came to participate in the workforce, and others fled wars and conflicts. As a result of a welcoming atmosphere, Sweden became a home for migrants, who in turn became fellow citizens, working for the country’s progress.

I would like to thank the Riksdag, the Ombudsman for Children in Sweden and Children's Welfare Foundation for organising such a timely meeting, bringing a child-rights perspective to the migration debate.

It has been more than a year since I assumed the role of the Secretary General’s Special Representative on migration and refugees. I am responsible for gathering information on the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees in the 47 Council of Europe member states, including through fact-finding missions and making proposals for action. I also contribute to co-ordination within the Council of Europe and have been asked to ensure effective communication and synergies with international partners.

As today I have been invited to speak about the migration situation in Europe from a human rights perspective, I would like to start by sharing with you some general observations. Then I will focus on the situation of migrant and refugee children since in my current activities I have attached particular importance to this vulnerable group. I will then move on to a presentation of the activities we are planning in the Council of Europe.

Let me preface my following observations by saying that they are mainly based on the fact-finding missions I have carried out so far in Greece, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, Turkey, France and Italy.

Several European countries are faced with the major challenge of managing mass migration while discharging their human-rights obligations. The situation is different in each country. Certainly, there are good practices in the field. Italy, for example, has been making strenuous efforts to save lives, even outside its search and rescue zone, in the Mediterranean.

At the same time, some Council of Europe member states have closed their borders pushing persons in need of international protection back to other member states where the right to life and freedom from ill-treatment are not guaranteed. The principle of non-refoulement enshrined in international law is not always respected.

A particularly worrisome trend is the reflexive response – almost a knee-jerk reaction I would say – by some countries which are enacting new legislation on border-closures, automatic detention of refugees and migrants, automatic expulsion without any assessment of their asylum claims or without consideration of the risks of being tortured or persecuted upon their return in transit or origin countries.

While efforts are being made in several countries to provide proper accommodation to persons amassed in border areas, we generally notice that the living conditions remain below the standards, migrants outside formal accommodation system receive very little care, and vulnerable groups do not receive the special treatment that they need. Many countries are also confronted with difficulties in providing new arrivals with accurate information about their legal and administrative situation, interpretation services and psycho-social support.

The slow pace of relocation, resettlement and family reunification has aggravated the situation of refugees in Greece, Turkey, Italy and France. While the calls by the Council of Europe and other international organisations for more solidarity among states participating in the EU relocation scheme have been loud and clear, progress remains yet to be seen.

In respect of migrant and refugee children, my first observation is that migration-management systems are not sufficiently child-friendly. One common problem is protracted temporary solutions and the absence of child-protection authorities during critical moments of the migration-management process. To give you an example, while examining asylum claims, migration authorities sometimes overlook the existence of child-specific forms of persecution.

Lack of information results in serious limitations on other rights, such as family reunification. Family separation is one of the most widespread problems. Whenever unaccompanied children arrive in Europe, family reunification is needed to ensure their protection, safety and support.

During mass arrivals, unaccompanied children are not always identified, registered and provided with a guardian. In order to access special protection and assistance measures, identification of unaccompanied children and their immediate referral to child protection authorities is essential. Without proper identification procedures in place, children are at risk of being treated like adults and placed in detention.

Many countries also face challenges in establishing appropriate age-assessment procedures and guardianship systems. Invasive practices in age-assessment procedures are an issue of concern for most countries and the best interest of the child principle is not always properly taken into account.

Without a guardian and suitable care, unaccompanied children may be exposed to serious risks, such as sexual exploitation, and are more likely to go missing.

Lately, administrative detention for migrants is widely used instead of being a measure of last resort. One of the most urgent things that various organs of the Council of Europe call for is putting an end to the detention of children.

Many of the children who have arrived and continue to arrive in Europe may become victims of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. The Lanzarote Committee released a report in 2017 highlighting the main challenges in this field.

Trafficking is another major risk for these children, especially those who are unaccompanied. Rapid identification of potential victims is essential for their protection. Minimum living standards in the camps would also help eliminate the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation of children.  Gender-separate sanitary facilities, lighting, lockable units as well as "child-friendly spaces" would make a huge difference for those children.

Furthermore, migrant children quite often do not have access to compulsory education, although this is normally a right to be enjoyed by every child irrespective of their own or their parents’ legal status. 

As these children have been out of the education system for a while and traumatised during their journey, they need to have a sense of normality and be directed to local schools as soon as possible. They need to be provided with catch-up classes and linguistic support to have access to schools so as not be excluded from society.

This brief overview of the situation which I just gave is explained in more detail in the Thematic Report on migrant and refugee children, which I released earlier this month. I know how busy you all are, but please make time to read this document. I would like to think that it won’t be time wasted!  

Now, what are we going to do next? 

Based on my fact-finding missions and the Thematic Report, we have identified the areas in which the contribution of the Council of Europe could be of most value.

We have elaborated an Action Plan on the protection of migrant and refugee children, which includes concrete actions to support our member states in addressing the challenges that they are facing in addressing the needs of all refugee and migrant children at all stages of migration.

The Action Plan covers both emergency responses and long-term strategy.  Our primary consideration is the best interest of the child regardless of his or her immigration status or background. It includes asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children and has a special focus on unaccompanied minors.

The Action Plan is based on international law principles, in particular the principle of non-discrimination and the child’s best interest. Children should be treated first and foremost as children. Equal standards of protection should be provided to all children, including asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children.

Taking each stage of migration into account, from the moment migrant children arrive in Europe, the Action Plan will include concrete actions to eliminate the risks these children become exposed to when they arrive in Europe after a traumatic journey.

The Action Plan will have three priority areas:

access to rights and child-friendly procedures for migrant and refugee children,

providing effective protection, and

enhancing their integration.

We believe this approach provides a solid basis to support member states in fulfilling their obligations to secure children’s rights.

I strongly hope that the Action Plan will contribute, in a very concrete manner, to the protection and integration of migrant and refugee children who arrive in Europe. I also believe that this plan will facilitate member states’ responses by providing guidance to better protect children who got caught up in the midst of this humanitarian crisis.

So far, I can summarise my whole experience as a discrepancy between values and reality. What I find lacking is solidarity and long-term strategy to overcome this discrepancy.

Global challenges require global responses. Migration is not an issue of frontline or destination countries only. It is about people, and it cannot simply be contained in border zones.

I believe that more solidarity among member states and strict commitment to existing standards would be effective tools for aligning reality to our values.

Although our governments have many issues to deal with, I think that the needs of refugee and migrant children are urgent and each day that passes without these needs being addressed represents a risk for their well-being and development. Whenever children make their way to Europe, they must be given a chance to heal; and in most cases to start a new life.

Their lives are worthy of our attention and efforts. Not addressing their needs carries a high cost for our societies. 

We need to build partnerships to make sure that all migrant children enjoy the same rights as their peers and are protected adequately.

These children are our future, no matter where they will be during the rest of their lives: whether in Europe or their countries of origin.

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