Keynote speech by Commissioner Jourová : More protection for refugee and migrant children
Honourable Members of Parliament co-chairs of the Intergroup on rights of the child - Ms Corazza Bildt and Ms Chinnici,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to the 10th European Forum on the rights of the child!
This year's topic is 'children in migration'. We use this term to describe children in different circumstances. It includes asylum applicants, refugees and undocumented migrants.
You will see some of these children in the background of my presentation. The pictures were taken by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in the hotspots in Lesvos, Chios, and Samos, and the ‘Kara Tepe' camp in Lesvos.
And I would like to begin by telling you a story.
Amira is 16 years old and fled to Europe by boat, with her mother. Her father is believed to be dead.
They travelled with other family members. She describes the conditions they are living in now and says she does not feel safe. She gives some details about her daily exposure to violence. Despite the trauma she has suffered, Amira sees clearly.
She says that she expects the European Union and its Member States to protect her human rights, and recalls that in her country people viewed Europe as a beacon for human rights.
Amira says that she missed out on several years of school because of the war. And it is now urgent for her to go to school and catch up. She wants to be safe and to get on with her life. Her mother, sitting beside her, looks lost, traumatised and desolate.
Ladies and gentlemen,
While Amira is not the real name of the child in this story, her experience was very real. It is a typical example of what many children in migration and their families have to go through in these very hard times in their life.
Of course, each and every child in migration has lived through other experiences and they have their own story to tell. Often, what they have gone through has been more than a child should have to bear.
And, yet, they may be the lucky ones. They survived and made it to Europe.
I, and many of you, have spoken with many of these children in the past few months – in many places. And their situation demands that we rise to the occasion and ensure respect for their rights. We may be their last line of defence. And we need to make sure that their voice is heard. That is our responsibility.
Let me put the current situation of child migration into context.
There are no reliable figures for the numbers of third country national children who do not apply for asylum or who are undocumented. But, we know that one in four asylum applicants in the EU is a child and ninety-six thousand unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the EU in 2015.
Thousands of unaccompanied children are missing.
This is the most shocking reality of the migration crisis.
A report from Sweden last week said that four per cent, or eighteen hundred, of the forty-five thousand unaccompanied child asylum applicants from 2013 to the present have gone missing.
In February 2016, the European Commission announced a comprehensive approach to the protection of children in migration. And my colleague Dimitris Avramopoulos will tell you about proposals for new asylum and migration laws and EU funding under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.
The EU Agencies, the Fundamental Rights Agency, the European Asylum Support Office and Frontex carry out crucial guidance and support roles. They have developed helpful tools and collected qualitative data which can be used to inform policy.
The European Parliament and the Intergroup on rights of the child are defenders of the rights of children in migration.
And the UN Special Representative on the rights of migrants will have some very clear messages for us today.
In my own portfolio, the Commission provides funding for children's rights and to protect children from violence. This year we gave priority to children in migration.
All children have the same rights under the UN Convention on the rights of the child. And, they all have the right to protection.
No child should be discriminated against and they should all benefit from equal access to national child protection systems. EU law reflects and protects these rights.
And the New York Declaration on refugees and migrants reaffirmed international commitments that we should keep in mind in our discussions.
We have the institutions and the legal framework to act.
My concern – my objective for today – is to take stock of how things really work in practice – on the ground – and what we, as politicians, can do to help fill gaps and resolve challenges.
For example, how do these laws and policies work for individual children? How do they meet their needs? Are they child rights based? What impact do they have on children such as Amira?
We all know that in a child's young life just one week, a month, a year can seem interminable. So, we need to assess the time it takes for implementation. In particular, what can we do to speed up family reunion and reunification and ensure faster Dublin transfers?
Are procedures and processes adapted to the needs of children? What support are they given in order to be able to claim their rights? What is done to protect children from violence, whether they are in families, or unaccompanied or separated? Are we doing enough to identify individual vulnerabilities and to respond to them? How can we ensure a continuum of care and protection from arrival through to durable solutions, whether this means integration or return? Can we learn from someone else? Is transition from one stage or process to the next smooth?
There are still so many unanswered questions, particularly with regard to solutions. And I hope that we will address all of these issues at this Forum.
I'm sure effective guardianship will crop up in nearly all discussions. EU law already provides for the appointment of a guardian – which is a crucial role - for unaccompanied children. And we need to determine who the champions for a particular child are.
For children in families, we have a duty to support families in their role as primary caregiver. When I have visited reception centres, not only in Greece but for instance also Le Petit Chateau in Brussels, I am always very keen to speak with parents and to know what is done to empower them. This is important.
We must seek to restore their dignity and give them some control over their lives and let them be parents again.
Let me turn to Amira again and remind you how overwhelmed her mother was. The more integrated our responses can be, for both Amira and her mother, the better.
We are all becoming more and more aware of the importance of psychosocial support, as well as access to healthcare, not only for children but for the child's parents. We want to restore and preserve family unity and avoid family separation.
For unaccompanied children, I see opportunities to extend the use of family-based or foster care. We need to give children the best care possible and there should be a range of options available, in line with the UN Guidelines for the alternative care of children.
We should train those working with and for children in migration so they are qualified to do so. And we should train them to identify risks of violence, exploitation, abuse and trafficking, for boys as well as girls.
We should ensure that there are standards in place for reception, and monitor implementation.
We need to assure access to education, bearing in mind the New York declaration commitment to ensure access to education within a few months of the initial displacement.
We need to do much more work to be done to ensure a range of viable alternatives to administrative detention.
We must acknowledge that it may be in a child's best interests to return to her or his country of origin.
Not all children can or will stay in the EU. However, for any child who will not stay, we must ensure that they have enjoyed their rights to protection and non-discrimination, and benefitted from fair and effective procedures. We must also ensure that the primary consideration of their best interests is well documented.
We will compile a list of good practices for the protection of children in all phases of migration. So, I hope you will have a clear focus on good and promising practices and solutions and that you will contribute to that exercise.
After the Forum we will also issue conclusions to feed into further policy developments at both the EU and Member State level.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to discuss the situation of all these children over the next two days. I invite all of you to participate actively. And I look forward to working with you to implement our collective and coherent, comprehensive approach to the protection of children in migration.
Keynote speech by Commissioner Avramopoulos
Ladies and gentlemen,
This year's European Forum on the rights of the child, with a focus on migration, could not be more timely. My thanks go out to my dear colleague Vera, for organising this event on such a topical issue.
Even if we succeed in all areas of our migration policy, if we don't succeed in protecting children, we have not succeeded at all. This is why protecting children is such a priority for us.
And the refugee crisis has put this question even higher on the political agenda. The number of migrant children arriving on our southern coasts, both in Greece and Italy, has risen in the last two years. This is why our political and operational response should be equivalent to the needs and expectations.
Already today, the protection of children is central in EU asylum and migration law. We have important guarantees for migrant children who seek international protection in Europe.
We have had an action plan on unaccompanied migrant children for several years, and we have been carefully monitoring how Member States have implemented it.
As some of you may know, this summer the Commission has proposed a far-reaching reform of the Common European Asylum System.
So what are we proposing that will benefit the needs and interests of children?
Our proposals aim to strengthen the protection of migrant children, and in particular of migrant children who arrive alone in Europe. For example, we proposed measures to guarantee that children will be accommodated in suitable facilities. Children should also have access to specialised services and to education.
Those who are victims of trauma will receive psychosocial support. Family reunification procedures for children and unaccompanied minors will be strengthened and streamlined. Our Dublin reform proposal, for example, broadens the concept of family members to include the applicant's siblings.
Effective guardianship for unaccompanied minors is also an issue. Our proposal to upgrade asylum procedures contains several provisions that will make guardianship more effective. We want the appointment of guardians to happen promptly, respecting the pre-set deadlines.
Guardians will have to be adequately qualified and trained for their role, and they will have to have sufficient time to meet with and dedicate to each child.
The guardianship system will need to ensure monitoring and accountability mechanisms. Guardians play a specialist and crucial role within the asylum procedures, and more needs to be done to facilitate the exchange of good practice and expertise, to possibly share joint training and to work together on any cross-border cases.
We also propose that in the future, accelerated procedures and in particular detention measures may only be applied to unaccompanied minors in limited, exceptional and fully justified circumstances.
In other words: such measures should be avoided as a rule. More needs to be done as of now to ensure that alternatives to detention are available.
Likewise, improving reception conditions for unaccompanied minors in frontline Member States is an absolute priority for the Commission.
What are we doing now? The EU has already provided substantial funding through various channels in order to improve reception conditions for children in Greece and in Italy. We will continue to prioritise this in funding, with a focus on upgrading the standards and quality of care and protection.
Child protection is also present in the context of the new European Border and Coast Guard adopted in September 2016. The child's best interests will be a primary consideration in the activities of the Agency.
Right now, we aim to support frontline Member States to ensure appropriate first line reception and assistance for unaccompanied minors, in terms of identification, reception, provision of information and referral.
You are all aware that speedy and coordinated efforts are needed to face the phenomenon of children going missing. In terms of prevention, we need to build trust in the system by ensuring appropriate reception and care including effective guardianship; by improving the quality of information given to children; and by speeding up processes and procedures linked to relocation and family reunification.
In terms of identification, our proposal to revise Eurodac includes a lowering of the minimum age for fingerprinting from 14 to 6 years old, precisely to reduce the risks of going missing.
In the absence of travel documents, fingerprinting is one of the very few options to identify a person.
We also need to ensure that children who go missing are rapidly reported to the relevant national authorities and that every effort is made to find them.
In addition, according to the relocation decisions, applications made by unaccompanied children and vulnerable persons have to be prioritised. Despite this obligation, so far very few unaccompanied and separated children have been relocated from Greece, and not a single one from Italy.
This cannot continue.
Pledges must be urgently increased and delivered on, and internal procedures on the ground must be improved to make this all happen.
Let me also say that it is not just about making sure that children's rights are safeguarded and implemented. It is also about making sure that their vulnerabilities are not exploited, particularly in the context of the ongoing refugee crisis.
I have already mentioned the issue of children going missing. In addition, exploitation and trafficking is a serious concern. Behind every child victim of trafficking, there is not only a trafficker but also a 'user', or rather an 'abuser'.
The European Commission remains firmly committed to addressing all forms of exploitation and protecting the most vulnerable, in line with the Anti-Trafficking Directive and the EU Anti-Trafficking Stategy.
Risk assessment, durable solutions, presumption of childhood, legal and psychosocial assistance, education and assistance to families are some of the key features of our legislation.
Likewise, the legislation on protecting children from sexual abuse and sexual exploitation applies to all children in the EU, no matter their status or origin. Member States should therefore ensure the effective application of that legislation to all children, including unaccompanied children who are the most vulnerable.
Our EU agencies EASO, Frontex, and Europol are supporting Italy and Greece in the identification of migrants and the provision of information to them in hotspots. They also work with police forces to help identify and prosecute smugglers and traffickers.
Moreover, it is not just about saving or protecting children; it is also about empowering them. And this is why we cannot forget about integration, both now but also in the long term.
One key policy area is education. All children, regardless of their family, religious, ethnic or cultural background or gender, have the right to access education.
Refugee children may have attended school only for short periods of time, or never, and therefore need tailored support including catch-up classes. Teachers need the necessary skills to assist them and should be supported in their work in increasingly diverse classrooms.
Early Childhood Education and Care is fundamental for the integration of migrant families and children, and to make sure that all children are given the chance to realise their potential.
Different EU funds – such as the Asylum, Migration Integration Fund, the European Social Fund and the Fund for Humanitarian Aid – are being mobilised to support Member States in improving access to education for the vulnerable, and in particular refugee children.
Outside the EU, €120m of EU funding has been allocated for 2015-2016 to regional education and protection programmes for vulnerable Syrian refugee and host community children and adolescents working through partners such as UNICEF in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
The Facility for Refugees in Turkey, meanwhile, will support the schooling of young Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Finally, I wish to touch upon a sensitive question: the issue of return and reintegration in the country of origin. Let me say that return can only happen when it is in full respect of the primary consideration of the child's best interests.
We need to ensure better family tracing, and where return is determined to be in the child's best interest, appropriate assistance must be provided. The returning child must be received in the country of origin by a family member, a designated guardian or an appropriate reception facility.
The principle of non-refoulement shall be fully respected at all times. I wish to underline that children should never be left in limbo.
We need to avoid situations where children are not considered to have a right to stay in the EU, but they cannot be returned to their country of origin.
Ladies and gentlemen,
While we have many challenges ahead, we have also come a long way in recent years. We have the right foundations and the right tools to address these challenges together.
We are in a room of like-minded people: we all want to make sure children in whichever situation – and particularly those in a vulnerable situation such as the refugee crisis – get the protection they need.
The challenge is not to agree or discuss here today – the challenge is to make it happen. Many of you are involved at various political and operational levels: you can influence and you can make a change. This Forum brings an excellent opportunity to provide an effective response to these children by joining all our efforts.
Children are our future. They are the next generation.
Protecting and investing in them is not just about saving lives or about respecting fundamental rights, it is about shaping the future.