The European-Level Response
The European Agenda for Migration, first proposed by the European Commission in May 2015, contains both short-term and longer-term response measures. Based on relevance for refugee children, this subsection addresses relocations and “hot spots,” with resettlement examined in Section 3. The relocation system aims towards alleviating the disproportionately high volume of newly arrived asylum-seekers in “frontline” states straining asylum systems, reception capacity, and processing facilities. In this connection, the establishment of so-called “hot spots” in Italy and Greece are reception facilities aimed at facilitating relocation and improving registration (European Commission 2015a). In practice, implementation by member states has been slow and incomplete (European Commission 2016d).
In general, the Agenda scarcely considers the rights, protection, and well-being of refugee children. There is only one action specifically targeting children that was placed in a footnote—namely, the European Commission should update the Action Plan on Unaccompanied Children, which ended in 2014. Otherwise, the remaining two references are generic: first, the Commission undertakes to give guidance on strengthening reception conditions, paying attention to vulnerable groups (e.g., children); and second, effective integration policies should take into account the needs of groups including children.
Civil society has reacted resolutely to this gap. A January 2016 meeting was called for enhancing respect of child rights in the Agenda (UNICEF 2016c). In addition, a report issued by the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (2016) condemns the Agenda as: “not based on a human rights perspective,” and decries that “actions to reduce the risks children face on their journey to and through Europe are lacking. ... To implement the Agenda several actions have been agreed upon, however a child rights perspective, or even the inclusion of the word ‘child’ in the documents, is missing entirely” (31-32).
Even though the Council of Europe has adopted the Commission’s decision to relocate 160,000 individuals in need of international protection, this mechanism remains nonbinding on member states. By March 2016, a mere 900 individuals had been relocated (Fleming 2016). The European Commission (2015b) emphasizes that the “best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration for Member States when implementing this Decision.” Children, if in their best interests, should be prioritized for relocation (European Network of Ombudspersons for Children 2016; UNHCR 2016h). In selecting refugees, so-called “vulnerable” cases should be prioritized, which may include unaccompanied refugee children in Greece. Because of complex and time-consuming legal procedures with regard to the assignment of guardians, relocating unaccompanied children may be a lengthy process. Moreover, commentators have pointed out that care must be taken to ensure that transfers do not violate the best interests’ principle (UNHCR 2016b; Guild et al. 2015). The data do not reveal to what extent refugee children have been prioritized in this mechanism.
The establishment of “hot spots” in Greece may not have considered safeguards for child rights adequately. In addition, the delays surrounding relocations have led to lengthy periods children spend in such facilities, a cause for concern. Critically, under the terms of the Agreement reached between the European Union and Turkey, such “hot spots” may have been transformed into detention-like facilities, including for refugee children.
On March 7, 2016, the European Union and Turkey reached an Agreement for a Joint Action Plan to address the movement of individuals searching for international protection from Turkey towards Europe. This Agreement calls for the return of so-called “irregular migrants” arriving at Greek islands starting in March 2016 and various strategies aimed at preventing further irregular migration into Europe (European Commission 2016a). The Agreement holds that asylum-seekers benefit from protection against refoulement, with the Greek authorities processing applications for asylum individually in accordance with the Asylum Procedures Directive. Those not applying for asylum, or those whose refugee claims are unfounded or inadmissible, are returned to Turkey.
Nevertheless, there are concerns that Greece has neither sufficient capacity to assess such claims nor the capacity to provide adequate reception conditions, including accommodation, for refugees awaiting the examination of their cases (UNHCR 2016h). In furtherance of the Agreement, Greek authorities have transferred to the mainland an estimated 8000 individuals who arrived on the islands before March 20, 2016, to separate them from those arriving after that date and subject to the new return policy (Fleming 2016). Returns started in April 2016 (Al Jazeera 2016). As a result, UNHCR states it has withdrawn support for “hot spots” (Fleming 2016).
While debate has centered on the legal concept of return to safe third countries, the Agreement does not set out specific protections for children. Critically, there has been scant mention of the negative impact this Agreement may have on the rights and well-being of children in Greece, in general, and the situation of those children returned to Turkey (Beirens and Clewett 2016). It is sufficient to recall that refugee children must “enjoy asylum, without discrimination, in accordance with accepted international standards, including effective access to work, health care, education for children, and, as necessary, social assistance” (UNHCR 2016i). Indeed, the ultimate objective to address the plight of refugee boys and girls is the provision of a durable solution that addresses their protection and well-being in line with their best interests and the views of the child.