UN could step in where EU fails in child migrant protection
As the Syrian conflict enters its sixth year, children are being maimed, killed or recruited as soldiers, suicide bombers, prison guards, and executioners - more now than at any other point during the conflict.
But despite the stakes being so high for Syrian refugee children and other children on the move around the world, the EU has failed to protect them.
Rather than offering children fleeing to Europe the chance to be children again, European leaders and institutions have chosen to throw additional obstacles in the way of child refugees and migrants.
The EU’s illegal deal to send asylum seekers, including children, who land in Greece back to Turkey shows just how far down the list of priorities child protection is.
UNHCR staff have been denied access to the reception centres, which receive child refugees from the EU, making it difficult to determine if the legal rights of returnees are being respected.
The treatment received by child refugees and migrants within Europe is also lamentable.
Rather than being given the chance to start school again, children are detained under armed guard in squalid reception centres, such as Amygdaleza in Greece.
Conditions in the camp are deplorable, with children sleeping on grimy mattresses in damp dormitories - left with nothing to do due to a chronic lack of facilities.
Despite the EU already dragging its reputation for protecting child refugees and migrants through the mud, the European institutions' brazen disregard for the rights of these children seems only to be increasing.
The European Commission’s recent recommendations to lock up child migrants while processing their asylum requests – violating the rights of some of the most vulnerable children on the planet – shows how EU migration policy is only going in one harrowing direction.
The current Maltese EU Council presidency has also pitched the idea of providing Libyan land border authorities with vehicles, surveillance, intelligence and technology - with the European Commission allegedly earmarking €20 million to improve detention centres run by militias.
The numerous reports of how murder, rape, torture, abuse and extortion are commonplace in these centres seem to be falling on deaf ears.
Thankfully, the cynicism of the EU’s response to the refugee crisis is not held by everyone.
Over 70 NGOs protested against the proposed outsourcing of the EU’s asylum responsibilities to Libyan authorities, with almost 100 registering their dismay at Commission's plans to detain child migrants.
With the EU failing to put the safety and dignity of child refugees first, children on the move must hope for other sources of protection.
This is where the UN Global Compacts step in.
At a summit in September 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. This declaration states the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility for protecting refugees and migrants on a global scale.
The declaration also called for two migration compacts to be adopted in 2018 - the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. These compacts will outline a common set of principles and approaches for protecting migrants and refugees.
It is crucial that children’s rights feature prominently in both compacts. This would place more pressure on the EU to make member states step up to the plate and take their moral and legal obligations to protect child refugees and migrants seriously – rather than obsessing over their external borders.
The compacts must cement the principle that children must be protected regardless of their migration status, such as by not detaining them or forcibly separating them from their parents or guardians.
They must also ensure that national child protection measures include children on the move, that these children are not stigmatised by states or other groups and that migration policies do not violate children’s rights.
Finally, the voices of children involved in or affected by migration must be genuinely heeded when policies affecting them are developed, and they must have access to information, legal representation, interpretation and, if needed, guardianship on every step of their journey.
To give these ambitions the best possible chance of being realised, Terre des Hommes is part of the Initiative for Child Rights within the Global Compacts.
This initiative is developing and championing recommendations based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to be included in the compacts, and pushing for measurable ways to hold those responsible for protecting children on the move truly accountable.
With so many children currently on the move - both within Europe and across the world - adequate measures to protect them have never been so important.
Should the EU fail to turn around its plummeting record for protecting child refugees and migrants, the Global Compacts could be a much-needed safety net for them.
Ignacio Packer is Secretary General of Terre des Hommes.