A Child Rights Analysis of Refugee Children's Plight and Europe's Response
Charting the Refugee Child's Motivations and Journey into Europe
As detailed in the preceding, the majority of children seeking international protection within the European Union depart irregularly from Turkey. In this context, some of the factors propelling this large-scale onward movement of children and their families to Europe should be examined.
Turkey hosts the largest population of Syrian refugees—approximately 2.7 million—mainly dispersed across urban areas, with small numbers residing in refugee camps (UNHCR and Government of Turkey 2016). In addition, Turkey provides asylum to an estimated 258,000 refugees and asylum-seekers originating from other countries, principally Iraq and Afghanistan (European Commission 2016a; UNHCR 2016e). Despite accession to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Turkey expressly maintains the geographical limitation that restricts formal refugee status to individuals fleeing events occurring within Europe. It follows that asylum-seekers from countries outside Europe are provided with a “conditional” form of refugee status. In practice, the legal and administrative framework grants international protection irrespective of countries of origin.
This temporary character, however, pervades asylum and durable solutions for so-called “conditional” refugees are restricted to voluntary repatriation and resettlement. “Conditional” refugees are permitted to legally reside in Turkey pending resettlement to a third country or repatriation to their home country—options with limited availability for Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi children for the foreseeable future. In addition, the majority of non-camp based Syrian refugees in Turkey may not have de facto access to social services, with barriers linked to registration with authorities and overburdening of national structures. For instance, while Syrian children have de jure access to the national formal education system, for registered children this is severely curtailed by, inter alia, strains on national resources and linguistic differences. It is estimated that 500,000 Syrian children in Turkey are not enrolled in school (UNICEF 2016a).4 Refugees struggle to obtain gainful employment often falling below the poverty line, and there are reports of child labor.
Overall, in light of the temporary character of international protection, when coupled with challenges in accessing social services or refugee rights, Turkey offers “conditional” refugees short-term solutions rather than genuine longer-term prospects. These can be identified as some elements that may motivate children to seek international protection in Europe. Indeed, in 2015, children—49 % from Syria, Afghanistan, and
Iraq, with many emanating directly from Turkey—constituted 29 % of first-time applicants in the EU (Eurostat 2016b).
Asylum data in 2015 reveals a trend of individuals including children, moving across Europe, mainly to Germany, in an attempt to reach mainland countries to lodge asylum claims without interest in registering in Greece or those countries traversed by them. These states are viewed by children as countries of transit (UNHCR 2016j). For instance, within the 1.26 million first-time asylum applications in 2015, almost half were registered in Germany (Eurostat 2016c). Factors underpinning the motivation by children to reach destination countries of choice—mainly Germany and Sweden—may be linked to family reunification or perceived opportunities for education and employment (UNHCR 2015a).5 Thus, prior to the imposition of border restrictions by transit states in late 2015, an onward land route formed from Greece through the Western Balkan countries to access such destination countries. It is estimated that children made up a quarter of those moving along this route, with some states conceptualizing their role as mere prioritization of rapid transit of children (IOM and UNICEF 2015).
Diversity marks this refugee child population, which includes many children considered to be at heightened risk (UNHCR 2012). Refugee youngsters range from babies to young children to adolescents. Children are accompanied by one or both parents or caregiver, unaccompanied and traveling alone, and separated from parents but traveling with an adult relative. Until the age of 13 years, boys and girls are evenly represented; however, within the age range of 14-17 years boys form the vast majority of the children. This may reflect high numbers of unaccompanied boys arriving in Europe in search of a form of protection (Eurostat 2016a). Indeed, in 2015, there was a substantial increase in applications for international protection from unaccompanied children, approximately 88,000, the vast majority from boys (Eurostat 2016b). International organizations have identified five groupings of children deemed at particular risk within these European flows of individuals: babies and young children, children with disabilities, lost and stranded children, and unaccompanied or separated children without parental care (IOM and UNICEF 2015). Nonetheless, humanitarian assessments emphasize that all refugee children face serious risks to their safety, security, protection, and well-being (European Network of Ombudspersons for Children 2016).
The question thus arises: What are the protective standards for refugee children? Child rights and the principle of the best interests of the child are contained within the EU acquis communautaire, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The CRC consistently underpins national and European-level mechanisms designed to safeguard child-specific rights. In other words, without exception, every European country has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Therefore, each member state possesses the obligation to protect the rights of all children within its territory regardless of nationality or legal status. The EU’s CEAS—based on the international refugee regime and human rights law—establishes minimum standards on access to fair and efficient asylum procedures as well as reception conditions for those seeking international protection (Smyth 2014).
Moreover, a growing body of law, policy, and practice focuses on the situation of unaccompanied and separated children including a, now concluded, Action Plan for Unaccompanied Minors (2010-2014) aimed at establishing a coordinated approach and maintaining high standards of reception, protection, and local integration for them (Eba Nguema 2015; Dimitrova-Stull et al. 2016). Despite such robust frameworks for protecting children and upholding their rights, scholars have emphasized that such safeguards are not implemented constituently and upheld in practice by member states (O’Donnell and Kanics 2015).
The next subsection of this chapter charts the journey by sea and land of refugee children in order to identify some risks to their protection and well-being, with a view towards providing analysis of these grounded in child rights.