In the best interest of migrant children

“When global leaders meet at the UN Summit on migrants and Refugees, a discussion on alternatives to the detention of migrant children and their families is inevitable. Detention is never ever in the best interest of a child,” says UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau.

The 19 September summit foresees developing a global compact on migration. As the expert points out in his report to the upcoming UN General Assembly session this autumn, States must ensure to mainstream human rights in the global compact and “migrants should be treated as equal rights holders, regardless of their migratory status”.

“Control over migration movements can only be gained by opening regular, safe and affordable channels for migration; but States continue to erect walls, use barbed wire fences and take deterrence measures such as systemically detaining migrants, including children,” Crépeau says. “Freedom should be the default position, as it is for citizens and regular residents.”

Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most globally ratified UN human rights treaty, clearly states that the best interest of the child should be the primary consideration in all actions concerning them, and that no child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily, migrant children continue to be detained, either alone or with their family members.

Detaining children harms their physical and psychological well-being. It has adverse effects on their development; might aggravate trauma experienced before arriving in the transit or destination country; and the constant control and surveillance they are subjected to may be very disturbing for them, increasing already high levels of mental distress.

Separation from the community and from the outside world can also give a child the feeling of isolation and decrease their confidence. The often poor hygienic conditions and unbalanced diet will have drastic consequences on their health and physical development.

Further, children and adults are often detained together, which can lead to physical and sexual violence and abuse, while disrespectful staff may worsen feelings of humiliation with serious impacts on a child’s psychological development.

“I have seen and spoken to many migrant children. The suffering of those detained is indescribable; they do not understand why they would be punished without having committed any crime,” Crépeau says.

The expert also points out that an increasing number of children make their migratory journeys alone, and are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of human rights violations, such as sexual and economic exploitation and trafficking. Their situation, he says, requires special attention.

“Unaccompanied children should never be detained purely on the basis of their migratory or residence status, or lack thereof, nor should they be criminalised solely for reasons of irregular entry or presence in the country,” Crépeau says.

“Unaccompanied children should be treated as children first and placed in the alternative care system, either family-type or institutional care. Under no circumstances should they be left on their own, as this leaves them vulnerable to violence.”
Crépeau adds that detention of children justified on the basis of “maintaining family unity” is equally harmful. “I have seen families who could spend one hour daily together, as they were split in female, male and child’s sections.”

“Decisions to detain migrants who are accompanied by their children is questionable, as many rights-based alternatives to detention exist. A number of countries have already moved towards open reception facilities, particularly for vulnerable migrants such as unaccompanied minors and families,” the expert says.

On 19 September 2016, the United Nations General Assembly will convene a Summit for Refugees and Migrants in light of the need for greater international solidarity in response to large movements of migrants and refugees. This is the fifth article in a series covering the issue of migration and human rights ahead of the UN Summit.

16 September 2016

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