Six goals G7 countries can champion to better protect migrant children

This year’s G7 summit will be held on May 26 and 27 in Sicily, Italy. With the global refugee crisis likely to be high on the agenda, UNICEF’s David Morley outlines how Canada and other G7 nations can push for better protection of vulnerable children.

By: /
May 11, 2017
A displaced Iraqi child who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul with her family plays at Khazer camp, Iraq, February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Sixty-five million children around the world are on the move — fleeing conflict, poverty and climate change, looking for a better life and a place to call home.

As protracted crises mount and linger, refugees and migrants are taking longer and more dangerous journeys to find safety and a future. The children among them are some of the most vulnerable people on earth, and their numbers are not likely to fall. Many are travelling with their families, many others on their own. Every one of them needs protection and is entitled to the rights guaranteed under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Migrant children, especially those without documentation, are vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and exploitation. In transit and destination countries, migrants and their families often find themselves victims of discrimination, poverty and social marginalization.

The global refugee and migrant crisis is, more than anything else, a children’s crisis, and requires a global response. Canada has demonstrated international leadership through its comprehensive and whole-of-government approach in response to the crisis in Syria and surrounding region. Canada has a strong history of respecting and supporting global commitments that protect children. Through Canada’s commitment to revitalized multilateral engagement, and by leveraging the country’s international reputation as a champion and defender of children’s rights, the Trudeau government is well-positioned to take forward this leadership at the G7 summit in Sicily later this month.

We see a constructive role for Canada as a leader in support of the achievement of clear and actionable outcomes that all G7 countries can strive for in order to protect and advance the rights of children and youth, and children on the move. These outcomes include:

1. Protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence.

Governments must do more to keep refugee and migrant children from harm. Strengthening child protection systems is at the very core of this. Governments must introduce measures to this end, including training social and child workers and working with NGOs and professional groups. States must clamp down on trafficking not only through enhanced law enforcement but also by providing better support to migrant children, through the systematic appointment of qualified guardians, better access to information regarding their own situation and the management of their cases and access to legal assistance. Governments should also develop clearer guidance for case officers when determining the migration status of children to prevent the return of children and families to persecution, or dangerous or life-threatening situations, using the best interest of the child to guide legal decision-making in all cases. By taking these more concerted measures, governments can establish safe settings for children that will help in addressing the multiple other risk factors they face. 

2. End the detention of children who are seeking refugee status or migrating.

Mandatory and indefinite detention of children can lead to trauma, hopelessness and anxiety as they live a life in limbo. Given the negative impact of detention on a child’s development, governments should introduce practical alternatives wherever children are involved. Children are particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological violence, making alternatives to detention all the more urgent. Measures could include the surrender of passport and regular reporting requirements, guarantors or bailees who may be family members or community supporters, foster care and supervised independent living for unaccompanied and separated children and compulsory registration with authorities.

3. Preserve refugee and migrant children’s families and legal identities.

Keeping families together is one of the best ways to protect children and guarantee their right to family life. Clear policy guidance must be developed to keep children from being separated from their parents during border control processing and any migrant legal processes. States should speed up procedures and make it easier for children to reunite with their families, including with their extended families in destination countries. States should pursue all practical measures to reunify children with their families. Governments must also safeguard a child’s identity in order to avoid statelessness, and to allow children access to services that will help ensure their future well-being. 

4. Provide all refugee and migrant children with access to education, health and other quality services.

A child’s migration status must never represent a barrier to accessing or utilizing essential services. A collective effort by governments, communities and private sector to do more to provide education, health, shelter, nutrition, water and sanitation and access to legal and psychosocial support to children is paramount. This is not only a collective responsibility, it’s in all societies’ common interests. 

5. Act on the underlying causes of large-scale movements of refugees and migrants.

In order to stem the refugee and migrant crisis at its source, governments must address the root causes of conflict, violence and extreme poverty. This includes increasing access to education and social protection, expanding opportunities for family income and youth employment and fostering more accountable and transparent governance. Governments should facilitate community dialogue and engagement towards peaceful conflict resolution, tolerance and a more inclusive society, as well as take measures against gang violence. Tolerance and inclusion must be a constant pursuit. 

6. Promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization in countries of transit and destination.

Uprooted children are often victimized by discrimination, xenophobia and stigma — both on their journeys and in their final destinations. Everyone has a part to play in welcoming uprooted children into our cities and communities. UNICEF calls on governments, local leaders, religious groups, NGOs, the media and the private sector to help combat xenophobia and facilitate greater understanding between uprooted children and families with host communities. Governments should also set up stronger measures to combat discrimination and marginalization in countries of transit and destination to prevent the rise of hate and anti-refugee feeling.