Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis will soon hit its third year, and as the numbers show, children are playing an even larger- and often tragic- part in it. Between January and September 2016, more than 664,500 children claimed asylum in Europe; In Italy, nine in ten children arriving this year are unaccompanied; in Greece, 23,000 children remain in limbo –their futures hanging in the balance, their education on hold. More than 700 children are estimated to have died at sea trying to reach Europe this year alone.
The EU is not powerless on the issue. Many things can be done. Today, at the occasion of the 10th European Child Rights Forum, over 75 child rights agencies, including Save the Children, UNICEF and UNHCR urge the EU to take immediate action to protect children, with 7 concrete proposals.These include the urgent adoption of an EU Action Plan on children in migration, strengthened safeguards for children in the asylum legislation, increased funding for national child protection systems and building mechanisms to protect children across borders.
Beyond their immediate needs in terms of food and shelter child migrants and refugees arriving in Europe need protection above all else. Last week, a six year old child and woman died during a fire in Moria detention camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. It’s unacceptable that children fleeing death back home, die in Europe as they wait for paperwork to be completed. The EU and member states continue to drag their feet on family reunification and the relocation of asylum seekers, leaving people languishing in sub-standard camps.
The countries children arrive in and travel through lack capacity, resources and coordination to ensure that children have access to the asylum process. At the current rate it takes more than a year for a child stranded in Greece to be reunited with his or her family. No wonder that as a consequence, children disappear or turn to smugglers in order to reach family and community members in other member states.
The EU has the tools to make this happen. The ongoing reforms of the asylum system can enhance the protection of children by ensuring access to guardians, education and family reunification. To help them integrate, the EU could make sure that children receive a secure long-term residency status. The EU could also put forward much more robust alternatives to detention, preventing them from being detained, as has now become common practise in many countries.
Funding needs to be made available to support an innovative, integrated response by the European Commission, Member States and civil society. A range of financing instruments could earmark the resources needed to address issues related to children in migration.
Investing in transnational child protection is essential to prevent children from going missing. The EU can play a vital role by looking at the mechanisms that exist between Member States and improving cross-border cooperation that protects children. Data platforms for information exchange between member states could already provide a first step in the right direction.
Many of these children will grow up to become future EU citizens.The EU has the instruments and resources to make a greater commitment to child refugees and migrants. We need to invest in them and encourage them to become active participants in our societies.