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Refugee children should have a genuine chance to seek asylum

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 24/08/2010
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The real asylum policies in Europe today largely ignore children among refugees. They are often not listened to and rather treated as if they were possessions belonging to their parents. It is often forgotten that they could have their own reasons for seeking protection. Some of them do.

When children arrive in a family group, the parents are regularly interviewed about the grounds for their asylum application, while often the minors are not given the opportunity to spell out their reasons.

When children arrive unaccompanied, the migration authorities tend to focus only on how to bring them back to their parents, ignoring that they have in many cases escaped from their country with the fullest support of their family.

In cases when authorities do intend to interview children more seriously there appears to be a lack of capacity to do this in a meaningful manner. Overcoming language and cultural barriers - and the effects of trauma - require a particular skill. The appointment of guardians defending the interests of individual children, as now proposed by the EU Commission, is however one step in the right direction.

The responses by governments to the needs of refugee children have profound implications for their future. The principle of the best interest of the child must guide the asylum process. This means that each child should be seen as an individual, and special consideration must be given to his or her particular circumstances.

Guidelines for the asylum process for children

Governments need to establish guidelines aimed at making the process as fair and comfortable as possible. Key points are:

  • Not only the parents but also children should be interviewed - it is key that their experiences be heard independently. When appropriate, a separated interview should be organised.
  • The child’s possible grounds for asylum should be addressed in the interview.
  • Any officials, interpreters or others carrying out interviews with asylum-seekers should receive special training for recognising and interviewing particularly vulnerable asylum-seekers. Interviews with children require special attitudes and skills.
  • Separated and unaccompanied minors should be appointed competent guardians as expeditiously as possible.
  • Great importance should be attached to children’s grounds for asylum in the judicial process.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has issued a manual for how authorities can determine the best interests of the child. It should serve as a common reference for all the officers who work with children seeking asylum.

Same rights as other children

Migrant children have the same rights as all other children, including the right to live in decent conditions and to receive quality education.

International norms on the rights of the child are in fact quite demanding – perhaps more demanding than some governments may have thought when ratifying them – but this is no excuse for delaying their implementation.

Thomas Hammarberg