Consider for The Migrant Girl Child in Europe







Europe: “Children in Migration Deserve Better Protection”

[06/08/07] Migrant children are one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe today. Some of them have fled persecution or war, others have run away from poverty and destitution. There are also those who are victims of trafficking. At particular risk are those who are separated from their families and have no - or only temporary - residence permits. Many of these children suffer exploitation and abuse. Their situation is a major challenge to the humanitarian principles we advocate.

Human Rights Watch recently published a critical report on how the 900 unaccompanied children who arrived by boat from Africa to the Canary Islands last year had been received. Such reports are particularly important as there is little official data on the reality of Europe’s migrant children. In order to formulate a wise and comprehensive policy on this issue, we need more facts. Statistics and other relevant data are missing on almost all aspect of the migration cycle: about those coming to the borders, who they are and what happens to them; about those who are in the country without a permit, whether they are in school or work and with whom they live; and about those who have residence permits and their social situation.

Though the scope and nature of the problem is partly hidden, we know enough to realize that the situation is serious. The lack of precise statistics and facts is therefore no excuse for political passivity. While efforts are made to collect data, a more energetic policy should be developed to protect the rights of these children.

There are international norms in this area. Both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families give clear guidance on how the rights of migrant children should be protected

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also adopted recommendations on refugee children and separated migrant minors. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has issued guidelines to governments and also launched a joint project together with Save the Children, entitled “Separated Children in Europe Programme”.


Such efforts are needed as the agreed rules and guidelines are not always enforced. One reason is obviously xenophobia. There are extreme political parties and groups promoting prejudices and fear in several European countries today. Some of them have got a foothold in parliaments or local assemblies. Unfortunately, some of the bigger political parties have adjusted their message to reflect such tendencies instead of exposing them. Extremist media has also played a negative role and disseminated stereotypes and in some cases even hate propaganda.

Xenophobia and fear of xenophobia have tended to focus the migration debate on border security – whether migrants should be let in or not – rather than on the broader picture of migration in all its aspects. This has become worse after 11th September 2001 and the increased Islamophobia during recent years.

The consequences have also been negative for those migrants, not least the younger ones, who already live in our societies. It is therefore particularly unfortunate that so few politicians highlight the value of diversity and multiculturalism in today’s world.

What should be done in concrete terms to protect and promote the rights of migrant children? How should the norms and guidelines be implemented?

Children’s rights

The starting point must be that migrant children are first and foremost children. They are vulnerable and have the same rights as others. The principle of the best interest of the child means that each child must be seen as an individual and special consideration must be given to his or her particular circumstances. All children should be listened to with respect.

Many migrant children have been uprooted once or twice or even more times. Separation from earlier homes, relatives and friends can cause trauma. This makes it even more crucial that adult support is found. Save the Children and UNHCR have proposed that a legal guardian or representative be appointed for each arriving separated child. These children have the right to be met with respect and by personnel who have training and capacity to understand children.

Family unity

Family reunification is an urgent need for many migrant children. Tracing of other family members should be undertaken as a matter of priority and on a confidential basis. No child should, however, be sent back to the country of origin if adequate reception and care are not guaranteed.

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly has recommended member States “to facilitate the family reunification of separated children with their parents in other member states even when parents do not have permanent residence status or are asylum seekers, in compliance with the principle of the best interest of the child” (Recommendation 1596).

This may be controversial in some political camps, but is fully in line with the agreed norms on children’s rights. The right to family reunification applies to all children. Those governments which have limited this right only to the younger children – for instance, only to those below 15 years of age – should be reminded about their child rights obligations.


The right to health should be given priority. Poverty and poor housing conditions undermine health in general. Also, many migrant children have a background of very difficult experiences which may require psychological support – this is an area where schools have a key role not least for the detection of problems, but also for the follow-up, which could include supportive treatment.

Considerations of health are also a strong argument against detention of children at any stage of the migration process. It is shameful that, even in Europe, unaccompanied children are still locked up while waiting for decisions about their fate or before being deported.


Whatever the child’s background, the right to education is absolutely central. Migrant children should be ensured access to compulsory education – irrespective of their or their parents’ legal status. It is crucial that the quality of the schooling received is guaranteed and that pupils have the possibility to learn the majority language (while also developing their mother tongue). One of the problems in some countries has been a lack of trained teachers who can care ably for migrant children.

Europe cannot afford to fail our young newcomers, their fate is ours and they have much to contribute – if given a chance. The first step is to recognize that they have human rights.

Thomas Hammarberg


Separated Children in Europe
Programme jointly established by UNHCR and Save the Children

General comment n° 6(2005) of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the treatment of unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of origin (UNHCR website, .pdf format)
"Unwelcome responsibilities. Spain's failure to protect the rights of unaccompanied migrant children in the Canary Islands". Report by Human Rights Watch
Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)9 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers to member states on life projects for unaccompanied migrant minors


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