Malcolm Bradshaw MBE, the Anglican Chaplain in Greece, reports from a conference organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) entitled ‘Dialogue on Protection Challenges: Children on the Move’, held this month in Geneva…
The hard reality that prompted this conference is that the number of displaced persons globally has reached historic levels at 65 million people plus. Of these, 51 per cent are minors or children, including 98,400 minors who are unaccompanied asylum seekers or separated children.
The risks faced by children crossing international borders in search of protection are significant. Two children drowned every day crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Others have been kidnapped by smugglers and traffickers to face sexual and physical violence, being detained in inhumane conditions and forced into child labour or child marriage. Many of these children are stateless orphans.
Sadly, durable solutions are elusive.
Attending this gathering to search for solutions were representatives of government and non-governmental organisations, faith-based organisations, academics and child protection experts – but most important were the contributions made by young delegates with a direct experience of being displaced.
Topics discussed at the two-day conference looked at how to protect children on the move, how to better implement children’s rights, and how to better respond to sexual and gender-based violence aimed at children, among other issues.
An outcome of the conference is that UNHCR policies and guidelines will be updated as part of a ‘collective push’ to help children in 2017.
Here are some of areas where conference delegates agreed positive action could be taken.
Offer child-friendly responses: All responses to minors/children on the move must be child-centred and child-friendly. In all cases, the best interests of the child should be upheld.
Listen to children: Minors/children must be listened to, consulted and treated as partners, not clients, because they frequently hold the answers to their own problems. Children need to be kept fully informed of their rights so they can participate in decision making.
Stop detention centres: The practice of holding minors/children on the move in detention centres must stop. Child-friendly centres must be established.
Establish legal status: Every child is entitled to have a legal status – to have his/her birth registered and to be given nationality. There is an urgent need to end child statelessness. Not being recognised as having a nationality creates insurmountable barriers to education and adequate healthcare, stifles job prospects and places the child at risk.
Collect useful data: World-wide data for children on the move should be comprehensively improved. There is an urgent need for better comparative data on the characteristics, capacities and needs of children on the move and on their success in securing durable solutions.
Utilise national protection systems: Pressure must be placed on all states to see that children on the move are brought under national child protection systems and not marginalised as being of a different category, ie as non-nationals who are not entitled to be brought into national child protection systems. Sweden is exemplary in the way it places non-national children under the same protection processes as its own nationals.
Provide education: Education should be made a priority for children on the move, not only for personal development but so they can better protect themselves from the risks of trafficking, early marriage, recruitment by extremists, and so on. At present, many children on the move are losing up to one or more years of education.
Improve family reunification: As a matter of urgency, leaner and more effective family reunification procedures must be established. The time presently taken for family reunification often leaves children living in poor conditions.
Improve transnational co-operation: Regional co-operation between states must be strengthened. Appropriate data on children should be collected and their movements monitored, and such information made available to the next state of entry solely for the purpose of the child’s welfare and protection.
Increase role of the private sector: Financial, technological and other resources can be accessed from within the private sector to help support children and provide practical solutions. The involvement of IKEA is an example of this.
Create a web portal: A web portal will be created to share good practice with those who work to support children on the move.
Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the conference lay in a failure to raise the issue of prevention.
Rightly, the conference focused on meeting the needs of children/minors on the move now and in the future. However, highlighting the need to discern where the next disaster area might be (eg the next Syria), and making early interventions that help lessen the need for children/minors to move, could prevent many children from experiencing misery. To be on the move should always be a choice, not a compulsion.
But overall I found this conference to be extremely worthwhile. It opened me up to a much wider world of protecting, caring for and establishing durable solutions for refugees/migrants, particularly minors and children.
The conference also afforded an opportunity to meet and hear of the work of inspirational practitioners in the field – a source of real encouragement.