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Speech at the the Event on “Age assessment of unaccompanied migrant children: promoting a human rights and multidisciplinary approach”

SRSG on Migration and Refugees Leyla Kayacik
Rome, Italy 30 March 2022
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Good morning to all participants, those present in this meeting room today and those connecting online. First of all, I would like to thank warmly our hosts: His Excellency the Minister of Health (Mr Roberto SPERANZA), the Director General of Italy´s National Institute for Health, Migration and Poverty (Ms Concetta MIRISOLA) and the Health Director at INMP - Gianfranco COSTANZO and his team - for all the work carried out in the organisation of this event, which takes place in the framework of Italy´s Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

I also thank the Chair of the Council of Europe´s Steering Committee on the Rights of the Child, Ms Maria-Andriani KOSTOPOULOU, for being here with us today. We have heard about the important work that her Committee (the CDENF) has recently completed a draft Recommendation “on Human Rights Principles and Guidelines on age assessment for children in the context of migration”. We both hope that this event will contribute to gathering the necessary political support to get the Recommendation formally adopted by the Committee of Ministers very soon.

I would like to continue my thanking, this time for the presence and participation, here and online, of members of the Council of Europe Network of Focal Points on Migration, including the presentation of national experiences by Austria and Greece as regards their own age assessment systems. And of course, many thanks to the members of the CDENF committee who are connecting to this meeting today, and who will be coming to Rome next week for the conference launching the new Council of Europe Strategy on the Rights the Child for 2022-2027.

Now, I would like to say a few words about my mandate as Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees, a position which was set up in 2016. I took up my duties on 1 January this year and continue the work of my predecessors by focusing on three main activities: (i) to carry out fact-finding missions; (ii) to strengthen co-ordination of the relevant activities within the Council of Europe; and (iii) to establish communication and co-ordination channels with our international partners.

The objective of my role is to enable the Council of Europe to provide immediate assistance and support to member states,

    • by cmplementing the activities f other relevant Council of Europe bodies, and
    • by c-ordinating ur action with international partners.

Next, I would like to place this important topic of age assessment in the context of my mandate and the work of the Council of Europe on migration and refugees. In May 2021, all the member states of the Council of Europe adopted an Action Plan on protecting vulnerable persons in the context of migration and asylum in Europe (2021-2025). Needless to say, children are one of the most vulnerable groups in a migration context – as we are seeing every day the growing number of children fleeing Ukraine.

As regards age assessment procedures in a migration context, the Action Plan refers to:

    • the cmpletion of a recommendation with “human rights principles and guidelines n age assessment for children in migration”, and
    • the develpment of “targeted actin on safeguards in age assessment procedures, including training for practitioners in the field”, s work by the Council of Europe on this important issue will continue once the guidelines finalised earlier this year will be formally adopted by the Committee of Ministers.

Our new Action Plan builds on the lessons learned from the previous CoE Action Plan, which focused on “Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children” and which covered the period 2017-2019.

Under that Action Plan, the CoE adopted in 2019 a very important and relevant Recommendation: “on effective guardianship for unaccompanied and separated children in the context of migration”. As Ms Kostopoulou has noted, this tool is very important also in the context of age assessment, as it addresses the role of guardians in age assessment processes. The new Recommendation on age assessment will provide more details about the appointment of guardians and some of their important tasks throughout the age assessment procedures.

My Office carried out many activities over the past years linked to the implementation of the previous Action Plan on Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children, including guidance on standards and promising practices on family reunification for refugee and migrant children; on how to convey child-friendly information to children in migration, and a compilation of standards and practices on child-friendly approaches in the field of migration.

Furthermore, another of my priorities is to continue promoting the important free online HELP courses on migration-related topics, such as the course on Refugee and Migrant Children, which is addressed to legal professionals and other relevant practitioners and was a direct output of our previous Action Plan on Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children. This course includes a module on age assessment, and I encourage all of you to use this course and help disseminate it.

An updated version of this HELP course was prepared in 2021, with the co-operation of the UNHCR Office in Strasbourg and several CoE services, including the European Court of Human Rights and my Office (a great example of joint work and collaboration across CoE services and between international organisations, to reach a common human rights goal).

I would also like to take this opportunity to call on Italy and the other member states of the Council of Europe to support the adoption of the new Recommendation “on human rights principles and guidelines on age assessment for children in the context of migration”, when it reaches the Committee of Ministers of the CoE this spring.

In addition, I would like to pay tribute to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as back in 2017 the Resolution on “Child-friendly age assessment for unaccompanied migrant children” called for the development of a child-sensitive, holistic model of age assessment that would enable European states to meet the needs of unaccompanied or separated children – and this work provided the basis for the new Recommendation on this topic that is about to be adopted.

I do not underestimate the complexity of agreeing on a new CoE standard providing human rights guidelines on age assessment, given the diversity of policies and approaches followed by our member states, some of which we will hear about today. Nevertheless, this is a topic where the best of interest of the child should be placed at the centre of the debate, so that their human rights are protected by national systems which are child-sensitive and include the necessary safeguards.

The future Council of Europe Recommendation is built on the fundamental principle of “respect for the dignity of each child as a human being and as a rights holder”, which should underlie all established processes and procedures for age assessment – “using a multi-disciplinary approach grounded in evidence-based knowledge, methods and practice and which is child-centred”.

The use of common principles and guidelines on age assessment in the context of migration across our member states would greatly contribute to upholding the human rights of children, hopefully also reducing litigation on this issue at the national level, with the high human and financial costs that litigation entails, also in terms of unfulfilled rights.

I look forward to hearing more about the Italian protocol for age assessment of unaccompanied migrant children, as well as the results of a national survey on its implementation. I am sure that other countries will find this information very useful as they embark on preparing or adapting their national age assessment processes. The same goes for the national experiences from Austria and Greece, which will be presented later.

I would like to end my opening remarks with a reference to the Council of Europe Network of Focal Points on Migration, which includes members appointed by 45 member states (and we are delighted to have the Italian Focal Point with us today: Donatella Candura, from the Ministry of Interior). The Network was set up in 2019 and in 2021 it increased its number of meetings from one to two meetings per year (in June and December).

A few weeks ago, I convened an “extraordinary meeting” of the Network, on 9 March 2022, regarding the situation of people fleeing Ukraine. My main objective was to gather information about the situation on the ground in relevant member states, as well as on the challenges faced, so that the Council of Europe can evaluate how best to support our member states within our mandate.

As we know, people fleeing Ukraine are very vulnerable and mostly women travelling alone or with children or older persons, as well as unaccompanied children. Our Focal Points meeting on 9 March 2022 identified clear risks of abuse, exploitation and human trafficking which need to be addressed by all countries receiving people from Ukraine. As regards unaccompanied children, we understand that age assessment procedures are being applied to persons fleeing Ukraine but there is little information available. I am sure we will hear more about it in the course of this meeting.

At the Council of Europe, our independent monitoring body on action against trafficking in human beings (GRETA) and the Committee of the Parties to the Lanzarote Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, have recently issued statements alerting about the urgent need to address these risks, that unfortunately are fast turning into realities...

I would like to end by connecting several of the elements of my work that I have mentioned this morning:

    • Firstly, my commitment to continue guiding the implementation of the CoE Action Plan to protect vulnerable persons in the context of migration and asylum in Europe, with a particular focus on the protection of children.
    • This requires a strong political will from CoE member states to adopt a new legal standard that focuses on human rights principles and guidelines on age assessment – sending a clear message about the importance of a human rights and multidisciplinary approach to age assessment, now more than ever with the growing number of children fleeing Ukraine.
    • Our next meeting of the Network of Focal Points, in June, will include the first “thematic discussion on child-friendly approaches and procedures in migration”, as foreseen in the Action Plan. We have invited the next chair of the CDENF committee (unfortunately, the mandate of Ms Kostopoulou comes to an end in May,) to discuss their ongoing work with the Focal Points, as well as the planned follow-up of the implementation of the 2019 Recommendation by member states. It is my intention to bring closer these two Council of Europe groups of national experts working on migration and the protection of the rights of the child, including in a migration context.
    • This is one of my priorities as Special Representative: to increase the internal co-ordination on migration-related activities at the Council of Europe, including in response to the growing number of persons leaving Ukraine, as well as co-ordination and co-operation with external partners – all aimed at delivering more efficient support to member states.

 

I wish you all a very successful event. I count on your active participation, and I will see you back again at the end of the day, for the closing session.

I thank you all for your attention.

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