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Speech at the International conference on “Children Victims of Armed Conflicts”

Strasbourg 1 June 2017
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Ladies and gentlemen,

War, armed conflict and terrorism have resulted in there being, today, more displaced people than ever. Nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution.

Children are among those worst affected by violence. The laws of war are cast aside. Children are subjected to bomb attacks on their homes and in their schools. Some are kidnapped, killed, sexually abused or recruited as child soldiers.

Hundreds of thousands of children are now associated with armed forces in over 20 countries around the world. Girls and boys are used in a variety of ways in those conflicts, ranging from support roles to active fighting.

It is hard to imagine these horrors from our comfortable homes. Yet we all remember the heart-breaking image of Aylan, a 3-year-old Syrian child, his drowned body washed ashore, or the photograph of Omraan, a 5-year-old Syrian boy, covered with blood and dust in the ambulance. 

In Omraan’s eyes, there was no hope for life and no hope for the future—only fear and suffering. In his steady gaze, there was questioning of the world. Children like Omraan have seen and experienced suffering in its worst form.

So what do these children do? They seek a way out from the conflict zone; they leave their countries... either with their family if they have one or on their own. And they become migrants and refugees.

For most of them, new troubles begin with border crossings and journeys at sea.

Unlike their peers in Europe, their childhood is spent either on dangerous routes or in overcrowded centres, some with families and some all alone.

Some tragically never arrive at their destinations. Last year alone, of the 4,500 people who died crossing the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy, seven hundred were children.

Having been forced to flee their homes because of violence and armed conflicts, these children have suffered on their journey more than any of us can imagine.

Most of them arrive in Europe traumatised from having witnessed or suffered from violence and sexual exploitation.

An increasing number of children are travelling without a parent or guardian or become separated from their parents along their journey. In 2016, over 63,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in Europe.

Nine out of ten children who crossed the Mediterranean last year were unaccompanied or separated. These children are completely on their own, with no one to guide them and no one to place their trust in. They are easy targets for traffickers.

After they arrive, they find themselves in overcrowded reception centres. While immigration detention is never in the best interests of the child, I see that the detention of migrant and refugee children is widely used.

Violence and sexual abuse remain the major risks they face, even after they arrive. They are not exposed to violence only at the hands of smugglers and traffickers; but also through state action and inaction. For example, I have received reports about alleged sexual harassment and abuse of children in some camps that I have visited and of disproportionate use of force by the police.

State actors should ensure that their interventions do no harm to children. In some camps, I have seen very angry children. Feelings of despair make children more vulnerable. The unfair treatment to which they are exposed increases the risk of radicalisation; also the danger of their drifting into criminality.

Some children go missing following their first encounter with migration authorities. Disappearances might be linked to poor accommodation conditions, lack of information, long asylum and family-reunification procedures or fear of deportation. At state level, the many failings in transnational cooperation aggravate the problem. This is why we need comprehensive protection systems so that children will not fall through the net. And, of course, the failure to relocate these children only increases the number of disappearances.

Trafficking is another major risk for these children, especially those who are unaccompanied. Today, children account for approximately 28 per cent of trafficking victims globally. Rapid identification of potential victims, before they disappear, is essential for the protection of these children.

So how is the Council of Europe going to assist? How can we contribute to the situation of children victims of armed conflicts?

On migration-related issues, what the Council of Europe can offer are its standards for the protection of the rights of refugees and other migrants. These can be found in the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter and other treaties. We can also contribute the unique experience of the European Court of Human Rights and our other monitoring bodies.

To provide you with some examples, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) gives advice on how to deal with attacks on refugee shelters and hate speech, phenomena which sadly also affect refugee and migrant children. The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) has been monitoring the situation of children, specially adolescent girls from Sub-Saharan Africa, in different countries along the migrant route. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visits places where migrants and asylum seekers are detained; unfortunately some of them are children. And the committee set up under the Lanzarote Convention on the sexual exploitation and abuse of children has published a report very recently on the measures taken to protect those affected by the refugee crisis.

Most concretely, in 2016, the Council of Europe placed a renewed focus on migration, with my appointment as the Secretary General’s Special Representative on migration and refugees. I have been asked to pay special attention to children.

My role in the Council of Europe is to gather 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 strive to build effective synergies with international partners.

The aim of my fact-finding missions to member states is to assess their needs so that the assistance we would like to provide is well targeted.

Children are left particularly vulnerable in these situations, and I still find it devastating that their problems are usually overlooked in emergency settings and in short-sighted reactions.

One in three asylum seekers in the EU is a child; among refugees and migrants, they are among those most at risk.

I have identified the shortcomings in Europe in my recent thematic report on migrant and refugee children. The report reflects the challenges and concerns I have encountered on my visits. Many children and families across Europe live in abysmal conditions, short of basic minimum standards. It is clear that the situation is not temporary and measures that began as emergency responses have sometimes become protracted. 

Identification of the main challenges and concerns was the first step.  The Council of Europe’s main roadmap for the next 3 years - to assist member states to overcome those challenges - will be the implementation of the Action Plan for Refugee and Migrant Children.

In the Action Plan, the main principle is that all children, regardless of their immigration status, are first and foremost children and should be treated as children. In the territory of Europe, they must be guaranteed full protection and, in many areas, the same enjoyment of rights as their peers. Why? Because it is best for them and best for us.  And we have agreed on it!

The task of addressing the situation of the refugee and migrant children recently arrived in Europe will, of course, demand concerted efforts for many years to come.

Children must matter in migration policies and debates. Given the urgency of addressing the needs of all migrant children, we need to create synergies between states, international organisations and NGOs to overcome the challenges. As far as the states are concerned, more solidarity is needed to relocate more children and help them live their childhood in dignity.  How is it possible that the first relocation of unaccompanied minors from Italy took place very recently in April and May since the start of the EU Emergency Relocation Scheme?

One area where we can create synergies is the implementation of the already mentioned Council of Europe Action Plan on refugee and migrant children. The plan was adopted very recently. It covers both emergency responses and long-term strategy. Our primary consideration should be the best interest of the child, regardless of his or her immigration status or background.

The Action Plan has 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 for supporting member states in fulfilling their obligations to secure children’s rights.

The Action Plan includes a number of concrete actions covering all stages of the migration process. Among these, there will be a compilation of good practices on child-friendly procedures related to migration, appropriate standards for the reception and accommodation of refugee and migrant children and new guidelines regarding age assessment and guardianship.

The Council of Europe will be seeking to develop cooperation with all major stakeholders in the fields covered by the Action Plan.

I strongly hope that its outcomes will contribute, in a very concrete manner, to the improved safety of these children, enhanced respect for their human rights and, in many cases, their integration in European societies. Receiving and accommodating them properly should be seen as the first step in the long process of building social cohesion rooted in a set of values to be shared by everyone. And there is no better place for looking for these values than the instruments of the Council of Europe, most notably the European Convention on Human Rights.    

Thank you very much!


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