14 September 2016

Richard Pichler: Rights of migrant and refugee children must be protected

Richard Pichler, shown here on a visit to Sri Lanka in 2011, is leading the SOS delegation to the opening of the 71st UN General Assembly. Photographer: SOS file photo

Richard Pichler, the SOS Special Representative for External Affairs and Resources, vows to continue the push to end child detentions during the upcoming UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants.

Mr Pichler, who was the Secretary General/CEO of SOS Children’s Villages for 20 years, worked with other leading advocates to ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) addressed vulnerable children and their rights. He will lead the SOS delegation to 19 September Summit for Refugees and Migrants and the opening of the 71st UN General Assembly in New York.

SOS Children’s Villages and its partners are urging the UN General Assembly to call for an end to the detention of refugee and migrant children while their families’ migration status is being considered, or if they are unaccompanied minors. However, a draft declaration expected to be adopted by the General Assembly includes a more modest call for detention to be used as “a measure of last resort”.

In the following interview, Mr Pichler talks about his expectations for the summit, the SDGs and the General Assembly.

Are you satisfied with the draft declaration on the rights of migrants and refugees?

There are many positive aspects in it, but the detention issue is the main point where we have problems with the outcome document. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC] states that a child has special rights and that every government – no matter where a child is born or where a child is – has the obligation to uphold these rights. The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children state that as well.
 
Detention contradicts our basic belief that every child enjoys the same rights, regardless of their asylum or migration status. You cannot cut the CRC in half and pick which rights do or don’t apply to children in migration.

The draft declaration calls for “giving primary consideration at all times to the best interests of the child”, particularly unaccompanied children or those separated from their families. What should be the priority of governments in addressing the needs of these children? 

The governments have to do two things in parallel. One is to live up to the obligation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In other words, governments have to exert every effort to ensure that these children receive or have access to protection, care, integration and education. Secondly, the governments have to do what is in their power to reunify the children with their families as stated in the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

The EU estimated that nearly 90,000 unaccompanied minors arrived as refugees in Europe last year. What can be done so that these children do not fall through the cracks? 

The most worrying issue is that the whereabouts of thousands of these children are not known. This leads us to ask the question of root causes, and why unaccompanied minors are being pushed into illegality.
 
One problem is that there is not enough solidarity amongst the European Union member states. There are some member states that are carrying a comparatively high burden in taking in refugees, while others are not. If there were a consensus to share the responsibility equally, it would be much easier for the individual governments to register refugees and share this registration data. But there is too little solidarity on migrants and refugees in the European Union.

A year ago the UN adopted Agenda 2030 and the 17 SDGs that contain key targets for improving education, equality and opportunity for young people. How satisfied are you that these goals will be achieved by 2030?

It is a bit early to make a judgement and one has to be realistic about expectations. But let’s think about how much has happened. Six weeks before the SDGs were adopted and applauded by 193 heads of state, one core element – inequality - remained controversial. When the SDGs were finally adopted, inequality was given the importance it deserves as Goal 10.
 
A year later, governments in both developed and developing countries are mainstreaming the SDGs and have started to make the necessary policy changes. Global foundations and corporations – through their corporate social responsibility engagements – are increasingly aligning with the SDGs. At SOS Children’s Villages, we have aligned our strategy to the SDGs and identified the SDGs that are most relevant to our target group.
 
I am very happy about this strategic focus. But now the next step has to be taken to implement and hold governments accountable for contributing to achieve the goals.

What lessons can be learned from past General Assemblies?

Let me put the outcome document on migrants and refugees and the SDGs into perspective and compare them to the discussions that were held a few years ago on the UN Guidelines for the Alterative Care of Children.
 
SOS Children’s Villages was a big advocate for these guidelines in 2007 and 2008, and by September 2009 this document was adopted by the UN General Assembly. In the last seven years, we had tremendous success in discussing these guidelines with governments around the world – so far approximately 70 governments have been in serious discussion with us and have introduced laws and other measures to live up to the guidelines.
 
I am positive that we are taking a similar journey with the outcome document on the migration and refugee issue, as well as with the SDGs. Given the challenges we face, the world has no choice but to move in the direction of implementing the SDGs. We at SOS Children’s Villages have to take our mission seriously by caring for children in need and speaking up for their rights in order to improve the situation of the next generation.


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