Reaching the heights for the rights of the child

Speech by FRA Director during panel debate on 'Upholding the rights of the child in the current migration crisis' given at the high-level conference on the Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child (2016-2021) in Sofia, Bulgaria on 5th April.

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished panellists, 

Thank you for the introduction, and many thanks to the organisers for this important conference. I’m delighted to have been invited to this panel on ‘upholding the rights of the child in the current migration crisis’, a subject that has been occupying the Fundamental Rights Agency and me personally for some time.

Before I go on to talk about refugee children in more detail, I would like to praise the Council of Europe’s new strategy areas to help empower and protect all children. The first three of the five priority areas identified in the strategy are:

  1. equal opportunities for all children
  2. participation of all children
  3. a life free from violence for all children

The emphasis on all children is welcome, and reminiscent of the UN goal of ‘all human rights for all’. In order to achieve this aim, though, we must remember that certain groups of minors such as those with a Roma background or a disability are in need of our particular concern and attention.

In speaking of particularly vulnerable groups of children, I come back to the subject of refugees. Migrant and refugee children are one of the most exposed groups in Europe today, with thousands of children with families or alone arriving daily and many dying in the attempt. It is barely two months ago that I stood in a camp on Lesbos and saw children gazing at me through a barbed wire fence. Although they had been confined in a compound for their own safety, they could be forgiven for thinking they had been locked up.

Of all the children arriving, unaccompanied minors are of course the most vulnerable. The number of unaccompanied children disappearing from reception facilities in both transit and destination countries after arriving in the EU runs to the tens of thousands, a shockingly high number. In Sweden, one in four children go missing from their accommodation. In Slovenia, an estimated 80% of children accommodated at the Asylum Home disappear.

What can be done for migrant children?

To begin with, FRA is calling for swift appointment of qualified guardians. The procedure presently takes up to eight months, and even once appointed, some guardians have up to 150 children to take care of. FRA very much welcomes the proposals by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to increase child protection in this regard.

With the steadily rising number of new arrivals, national child protection systems and local communities are also under extreme pressure. To begin remedying the situation, we must ensure that safeguards are in place to protect children from violence, exploitation and trafficking. This includes:

  • The deployment of child protection officers and other trained personnel
  • The development of a complaints mechanism accessible to children in reception and detention
  • Measures to preserve family unity and prevent separation.

Strengthening child protection systems, including in the health, education and justice systems, will help not only to take the best possible care of migrant and refugee children and their families, but also support their integration into local communities.

At FRA, we are taking numerous steps to increase child protection in this, the greatest migration crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War.

  1. We recently published a handbook with the European Commission on guardianship for children deprived of parental care. We are making practical use of this work as we are now deploying migration and child rights experts to the hotspots in Greece, where we will give fundamental rights advice and support to the EU’s asylum support office, EASO, and border agency, Frontex.
  2. We are publishing monthly reports on fundamental rights concerns related to the current migration situation, and the focus of this month’s edition is specifically on children. You can access the full report on FRA’s website.
  3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the subject of migration forms the focus section of FRA’s forthcoming annual overview of challenges and achievements in fundamental rights. There we will be issuing proposals for action, including a comprehensive fundamental rights assessment at the hotspots in Greece and Italy that covers all phases from disembarkation, initial reception, screening, relocation to asylum and return. This, we feel, would contribute greatly to closing protection gaps that most negatively affect the most vulnerable.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we meet on this spring day, we face the prospect of greatly increased numbers of refugee children making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean as the weather improves. What will their fate be? Will their rights be respected? This is the challenge faced by our Europe.

Thank you.