Identification of Protection Risks and a Corresponding Child Rights Analysis

To circumvent existing barriers to safe pathways into Europe, children have resorted to dangerous irregular routes facilitated by people smugglers.

During the Mediterranean Sea crossing, overloading of poor quality boats by smugglers for increased profits, lack of lifesaving equipment, and rough seas increase the risk of capsizing. Children are particularly at risk of drowning and a high number of child deaths have been documented. In 2015 alone, more than 3700 individuals attempting the crossing may have drown (Grandi 2016). To date, in 2016, a further 1500 are reported to have drown, including many children (UNHCR 2016f). It is estimated that 30 % of such deaths were children—an average of two children drowning daily, usually those under the age of 12 (UNHCR 2016c).

Such child deaths at sea represent “a tragic testimony of the collective failure to properly address their plight” (Grandi 2016). Despite international calls for strategies to reduce child deaths, including by expanding legal pathways for admission to Europe for refugee children, the policy response—detailed in the next subsection—has been largely focused on stronger measures to combat smuggling such as military interventions (Guild et al. 2015). This approach may neglect specific child rights, including Article 24 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000), and the CRC’s foundational principles. Article 6(1) of the CRC (1989) sets out the right to life, while Article 3(1) holds that: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” This principle must be respected during all stages of children’s displacement cycle, and it also comprises a procedural rule governing decision making (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child 2005). It is questionable whether the best interests of refugee children have been adequately considered.

The risks faced by children while traveling on land are similarly grave. They face sexual violence and abuse in overcrowded and substandard reception centers or informal sites and while traveling alone along insecure routes (Amnesty International 2016).[1] Indications suggest that there is a risk of trafficking of refugee children in Europe for sexual exploitation (Townsend 2016). Articles 34-36 of the CRC (1989) address the prevention of trafficking and sexual and other forms of exploitation, abuse, and violence.

The sheer number of refugees moving through transit countries have overwhelmed the capacity of states to provide for basic needs (e.g., accommodations, food, and water). There also is a lack of specialized services for children with disabilities or other vulnerabilities. Moreover, reports indicate that children may be accidently separated from parents because of the chaotic nature of the journey—for instance, at border crossings (European Network of Ombudspersons for Children 2016). According to Articles 12, 23(5), and 24 of the European Reception Conditions Directive (2013), and various provisions of the CRC, member states of the EU should take necessary measures to maintain family unity and prevent their separation. Overall, children must be identified and their protection prioritized at every step of the journey.

In late 2015, some states along the Western Balkans route introduced physical barriers and border restrictions, which regularly changed, denying entry to specific nationalities. For instance, Afghan nationals and those not holding valid registration documents were refused entry by the Federal Republic of Macedonia. These policies resulted in tens of thousands of refugees—mainly children and families—being stranded in substandard conditions in informal sites, including at Idomeni (UNHCR 2016a). This may have a disproportionate adverse impact on children and amount to discrimination contrary to Article 2 of the CRC (1989). Pursuant to Article 12 of the CRC (1989), children have a right to receive information in accordance with their age and developmental stage and to express their views freely in all matters affecting them. Lack of information and uncertainty over fluctuating policies serve to erode family and community protective structures for children and place strains on parents, leaving children at risk of neglect.

For those refugee children remaining in Greece, reception facilities are overburdened and may not comply with international standards. Women and children do not have access to separate sleeping quarters or sanitation facilities. Children should be accommodated in specialized facilities to guarantee the protection and care necessary for their well-being, including an adequate standard of living and access to education and healthcare in line with the CRC. Moreover, unaccompanied children newly arriving at Greek islands may be initially detained in police stations, pending the appointment of guardians—a lengthy process that delays transfer to specialized facilities for children (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2016). Articles 20 and 22 of the CRC address care and accommodation standards, while Articles 18(2) and 20(1) detail requirements in the appointment of a guardian or legal representative for unaccompanied children.

The preceding analysis has established that children face protection risks to their safety, security, and well-being, often running contrary to their rights at every stage of the journey into and across Europe. Both at sea and on land in so-called “frontline” and “transit” states, children should have access to protection and assistance from national authorities in line with their best interests. The response of national systems for refugee children in so-called “destination countries,” providing longer-term asylum, is briefly explored next through the case studies of Germany and Sweden. These case studies have been selected as reflecting the destination states with the highest number of accompanied and unaccompanied children.

  • [1] For example, Amnesty International research on refugee women and girls in northern Europe,who traveled from Turkey to Greece and then across the Balkans, documented reports of physicalabuse and sexual exploitation. Women and girls felt particularly threatened in transit areas andcamps in Hungary, Croatia, and Greece, where they were forced to share sleeping quarters with
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