COPENHAGEN/STRASBOURG, 19 June 2020 – On the eve of World Refugee Day, parliamentarians from the OSCE and Council of Europe participated in a high-level discussion organized by the British House of Lords on how to best protect unaccompanied child refugees, enable relocations and prevent human trafficking.
In today’s webinar chaired by Earl Alexander Dundee, Chair of the PACE Sub-Committee on Refugee and Migrant Children and Young People, participants explored how to ensure a high level of co-ordination between countries and support from relevant international and non-governmental organizations in order to protect refugees. The meeting was co-hosted by Lord Alf Dubs, Member of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Migration.
Participants noted that children who have made dangerous journeys fleeing conflicts continue to face risks once in Europe, including unsanitary living conditions, a lack of appropriate care, and threats of human trafficking, smuggling and sexual abuse. There is a need for improved co-ordination based on regular communication and information exchange between all key actors, including child protection services and civil society organizations in countries of origin, transit and destination, in order to effectively combat trafficking of children, it was stressed.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, last year at least 80,800 people arrived in Europe via Mediterranean routes, more than a quarter of them children. Unaccompanied children often live in large centres with minimal oversight, exposing them to abuse and psychological distress. Globally, an estimated 30-34 million of the 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons were children below 18 years of age. Many child refugees have fallen victim to smugglers and traffickers.
In his opening remarks, Rik Daems, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, recalled the precarious situation that migrant children face, including the constant threat of being trafficked.
“This is an absolute priority of the Council of Europe as a whole,” Daems said, noting a range of binding international commitments in this regard such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter. He also noted the work of other international organizations, including the OSCE with its cross-dimensional character, and the role of parliamentarians in making this issue an international priority. “We have to push the executive to establish strong policy objectives,” he said.
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli said that the online event was an opportunity for parliamentarians to do their part in addressing this crisis, including through international co-ordination efforts for relocating child refugees. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges when it comes to protecting refugees and migrants and managing migration flows.
“What we have been experiencing in recent months has shown that the virus knows no borders,” Tsereteli said. “We have also realized that the good health of our societies is dependent on the health of all its members, including the most marginalized and vulnerable.”
Lord Dubs stressed that addressing the challenges of child refugees must be done on the basis of international co-operation and shared responsibility. “No one country can do it on its own,” he said. “We all know that what we desperately need is to find safe passage for child refugees. We cannot let people exist in conditions that are not humane.” He stressed the importance of engaging the public to create political pressure to accept more refugees, which must be matched by parliamentary activity.
Dubs also called for an EU-wide agreement with the United Kingdom after Brexit in order to continue to provide children a safe route and the opportunity to lead a decent life with proper education.
OSCE PA Vice-President Margareta Cederfelt, Acting Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, praised the support given by the European Commission for the relocation of unaccompanied child refugees from Greece and expressed the hope that additional states would step forward.
“We stand ready to work further, together with other international actors, to ensure that we abide by our international commitments to protect the rights of all refugees and in particular children, irrespective of migration status, and to address common migration challenges in a co-ordinated, responsible and dignified manner,” Cederfelt said. “Such an approach is for the benefit of all of our citizens and the only path forward.”
Given the heightened health risks due to the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in the camps, Cederfelt stressed the need for family reunifications to continue in parallel to these voluntary relocations, as agreed under the Dublin III regulation. She welcomed the opportunity to strengthen co-operation between the OSCE PA and PACE and expressed hope that it would bring tangible results.
The event included participation of Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece and Chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe; Amani Ballour, a paediatrician from Syria and 2020 Laureate of the Raoul Wallenberg Prize of the Council of Europe; Ambassador Drahoslav Štefánek, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees at the Council of Europe; Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings; Stephan Mayer, Parliamentary State Secretary, Federal Ministry of the Interior of Germany; and Isabel Santos, Member of the European Parliament from Portugal, among others.
In discussions, participants focused on issues such as humanitarian aid and relocations to safe homes for unaccompanied child refugees and concerted action against human trafficking and migrant smuggling.
OSCE Special Representative Richey stressed the importance of prosecuting traffickers, noting that 7,000 potential victims have been identified in the United Kingdom, with only 42 convictions. Calling this gap is unacceptable, he urged support for stepped-up prosecutions to ensure that the rule of law is upheld.
Speakers also underlined that relocations must be done after an assessment of the best interests of the child has been carried out. They emphasized the importance of following up on children after relocation and the need to ensure an effective guardianship system, urging host countries to re-evaluate their reception models and to ensure strong co-ordination between national authorities and civil society organizations.
For more information on the OSCE PA’s work on migration, please click here.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly is comprised of 323 parliamentarians from 57 countries spanning Europe, Central Asia and North America. The Assembly provides a forum for parliamentary diplomacy, monitors elections, and strengthens international co-operation to uphold commitments on political, security, economic, environmental and human rights issues.
Originally posted on OSCE PA website here.