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Urgent need to protect the rights of migrant children

A new study by the United Nations Human Rights office has identified “serious protection gaps for migrant children in every region of the world.” It calls on countries of origin, transit and destination to adopt a child-sensitive and rights-based approach to protect the human rights of children at all stages of the migration process.

A health worker distributes food to Burmese migrant children at Baan Nam Khem © IOM/Thierry FaliseThe study points out that children in the context of migration, including children left behind and children on the move, are particularly at risk of discrimination, violence and abuse.

“Often the object of suspicion, neglect and abuse, children are locked up in immigration detention centres, denied access to essential services because of their or their parents’ status and subjected to the same regimes of criminalization as adult migrants,” says the study, which has been submitted to the current session of the Human Rights Council.

Yet, international law provides that all “children be seen and protected as children first and foremost,” rather than letting their migratory status, or that of their parents, dictate their access to protection and assistance. “Children should also be protected against discrimination or punishment on account of the status of their parents, legal guardians or family members,” the study says.

It further stresses that under international law, “the best interest of the child” should be the primary consideration for measures related to migrant children.

“All authorities and institutions that come into contact with children in the context of migration are required to determine that their actions are primarily concerned with protecting the interests of the individual child. This principle should override all others, including conflicting provisions of migration policy should these arise,” the study states.

It points out that children caught up in irregular migration are often “traumatized”, with their rights to education, health, adequate housing, identity and family unity denied.

“The absence of a child and adolescent perspective within migration-related detention policies means that children are often treated, and detained, as adults, including in punitive detention meant to deter future irregular arrivals,” says the study.

Children in immigration detention are often exposed to severely inadequate conditions, including deplorable living conditions, lack of adequate medical care, physical and sexual abuse and violence, overcrowding and inadequate nutrition. They “will often be traumatized and have difficulty understanding why they are being ‘punished’ despite having committed no crime,” it says.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has made promoting and protecting the human rights of all migrants a priority of OHCHR’s work. She last year volunteered OHCHR to chair the Global Migration Group (GMG), which brings together 14 agencies working on migration issues, from July to December in 2010. Her office also leads the GMG interaction with the fourth annual Global Forum on Migration and Development to be held in Mexico, 8 -11 November.

Heads of GMG agencies will gather in Geneva on 30 September for a key meeting focusing on the theme: ‘Irregular migrants: Ensuring the effective protection and protection of their human rights.’

The 15th session of the Human Rights Council is taking place at Palais des Nations in Geneva.

21 September 2010