December 2 2015

Caring for refugee children and restoring their rights

SOS Children’s Villages International calls on authorities to fulfil the rights of refugee and migrant children by increasing safe and legal ways for children and their families to come to Europe, ensuring dignified and humane reception facilities, not detaining children, and helping families stay together.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, and EU asylum legislation, refugees are entitled to protection from persecution and inhuman treatment, and they have the right to a dignified reception and to not be detained arbitrarily.
In addition, refugee and migrant children have the same special rights that all children under 18 have, such as the right to protection, shelter, education, and to live with their families.
In practice, however, refugees’ rights are not being fulfilled in all European countries, says SOS Children’s Villages International Advocacy Advisor Ana Fontal, who has seven years of experience with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a network of NGOs promoting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers across Europe.

SOS Children’s Villages Advocacy Advisor Ana Fontal has worked with refugees in the EU to help ensure their rights. Photographer: Rita Carvalho

Ms Fontal points out that Greece, for example, was condemned in 2011 by the European Court of Human Rights for exposing asylum seekers to inhuman and degrading treatment.

Not only do many asylum seekers end up destitute and on the street in European cities, in some countries they also risk being detained arbitrarily.

Amnesty International reported that 600,000 men, women and children are detained in Europe every year for migration control purposes. According to the human rights organisation as many as 100 unaccompanied children are detained in Greece at any given time.

“The profound negative impact of detention on children’s psychological and physical well-being is well known. Everyone concerned with children’s best interests should advocate very strongly against the detention of children,” Ms Fontal said.  

What can be done to help?

More than 700,000 people have applied for asylum in the EU this year. Approximately half are children. Yet more than 4 million Syrians are living as refugees in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.  Help to these countries, which are struggling to host the most refugees, should be increased, said Ms Fontal.
“Refugees are fleeing war and persecution. Most Syrians sought refuge in neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Turkey first. But, increasingly, many see Europe as their only chance – not because they want to come to Europe, but because they are living in miserable conditions, and don’t see the possibility of a decent life in the region.”
Asylum seekers should have more options to enter Europe legally and safely, she added: “If they had any alternative, no parent would put their child in a boat they knew was unsafe. Obstacles for refugees to reach the EU only benefit smugglers. With limited legal channels for refugees to reach a safe place, many don’t have another option than to undertake a dangerous journey, putting their lives at risk.”
Germany is one country that has made efforts in the right direction by committing to resettle almost 40,000 Syrian refugees through safe, legal routes, in addition to those who arrive in the country outside formal programmes.
As underlined in a report by the European Council of Refugees and Exiles and the Red Cross EU Office last year, excessive red tape is also preventing refugees from being reunited with family members in Europe.
In France, for example, unaccompanied children who are recognised as refugees can be reunited with their parents, but not with their siblings. This restriction forces families to choose either to leave some of their children behind, or not to join a child in Europe.
SOS Children’s Villages International is actively advocating for the dignified and secure reception of refugee children and their families. The organisation has also provided family based care for nearly 700 unaccompanied and separated refugee and displaced children in 2015, in countries including Syria, Lebanon, Germany, Austria, Italy and Finland.
Ms Fontal hopes that European leaders will focus more on the rights of refugee children and adults, and their potential.
“With some precious exceptions, many leaders see the refugee situation as a burden, rather than an opportunity to do the right thing and to benefit from the contributions that refugees can make to European society,” she said.
“We should do everything we can to embrace the opportunity and to work on good integration,” she added. “Make sure people feel welcome: protect them, support them, and they will become active members of society. We have a million examples of how our societies have benefited from being open and diverse.”