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High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges – Children on the Move (introductory statement)

Speeches and statements

High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges – Children on the Move (introductory statement)

8 December 2016
(Draft, check against delivery)


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Every day, tens of thousands of children around the world are uprooted from their homes as a result of conflict, insecurity and persecution – displaced within their own countries, or across borders as refugees. They are paying the price for a global lack of political will to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflict – exposed to appalling risks, their childhoods disrupted, and their prospects diminished as conflicts emerge or reignite, or drag on for decades without resolution. Recent estimates place the number of children displaced globally by conflict and violence – internally or across borders – at 28 million.

Internal displacement and refugee outflows are together just one dimension of a broader global picture of heightened human mobility – driven by factors including climate change, population growth, urbanization, food and water insecurity, as well as a search for better prospects. Children represent a disproportionate and growing proportion of the world's refugees – 51 per cent are children, compared to one third of the world's population overall, and they also represent a significant proportion of those moving in broader mixed migratory movements.

The number of unaccompanied and separated children on the move is particularly worrying. An increasing number are leaving their own countries or moving on from others in their regions, without the protection of their families and communities and exposed to acute risks at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, and during perilous journeys. In 2015, 112,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in 83 countries – more than triple the number in 2014. Already in Italy this year, 24,000 unaccompanied children have arrived by sea – almost double the number last year. We are also seeing large numbers of unaccompanied children on the move in other regions, including the Middle East, Central America, Africa and Asia. And these figures don’t come close to capturing the entirety, but only represent the tip of the iceberg: they don't include, for example, those granted refugee status on a prima facie basis, or the many unaccompanied and separated children living in protracted exile.

Responses to this complex and growing challenge have been mixed, and so far, inadequate. During my missions to field locations in the course of this year, some of my most disturbing encounters have been with children and young people living in parks and abandoned buildings in cities, exposed to exploitation and violence, and without adequate shelter or basic support.

One thing is clear: urgent action is required to ensure that children on the move are protected and their potential restored – and to secure solutions that will allow them to build peaceful and productive lives. Millions of today’s refugee parents were once refugee children – and refugee status is often transmitted from parent to child – and even to grandchild – as exile becomes prolonged. If we do not act together to find solutions for today’s refugees and other displaced populations, we will have failed this generation of children, and those to come.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In September, in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a wide-ranging series of commitments. If implemented, these have the potential to make a real difference in the lives of refugees and migrants – including children. Refugee children have particular protection needs base on the fact they are unable to return home owing to conflict and persecution. But there are many common challenges for all children on the move that we must join forces in tackling – root causes and drivers, vulnerabilities, exploitation by smugglers and traffickers, and rising xenophobia.

Children – regardless of their status, their circumstances and the reasons why they are on the move – should first and foremost be treated as children, with an approach based on care, and not enforcement. As children, they are entitled to particular forms of protection and support under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and their best interests should be a primary consideration.

The New York Declaration contains a number of important commitments. I will touch on just a few that I believe have the potential to substantially strengthen protection for children on the move, and hope that we may return to these again in our discussions today and tomorrow.

First, I very much welcome the commitment made by States to work to end the detention of children for the purposes of determining their migration status. Detention in this context is never in their best interests. In this respect, I am pleased to announce the expansion of the group of States engaged in UNHCR's Global Strategy, 'Beyond Detention', the first goal of which is to end the detention of children for immigration-related purposes. In addition to the twelve focus countries that have participated in the Global Strategy since June 2014, we will engage with authorities and partners in a number of new countries to work on expanding access to community-based reception options and alternatives to detention.

Second, States committed to document the births of all children born on their territory and to adopt measures to facilitate access to civil registration and documentation for refugees. These are both important methodologies for the prevention and reduction of statelessness, which is often a consequence, as well as sometimes a root cause, of migration and displacement. We are calling on States to accede to the Statelessness Conventions and to implement actions articulated in the #IBelong Campaign's Global Action Plan to ensure that childhood statelessness is eradicated and prevented.

Third, States undertook to expand resettlement opportunities for refugees, including refugee children and youth, as well as other forms of humanitarian admission and complementary pathways – such as enlarged family reunification and more flexible visa policies, private sponsorship arrangements, scholarships and, labour mobility schemes. They also agreed to consider the creation and expansion of safe, regular pathways for migration. These can potentially avert the need for children to undertake unsafe journeys, but to provide a sufficiently meaningful alternative, these need to reach a critical mass substantially above current levels.

Fourth, the Declaration commits States to ensuring that displaced children have access to quality education within a few months of their arrival. Only 50 per cent of refugee children currently attend primary school, as compared to 91 per cent of children globally. Experience has shown that targeted investments can substantially increase school enrolment: primary school enrolment in Turkey, for example, rose from 37 per cent in September this year to 59 per cent currently.

Education is a basic human right. In times of displacement, education is crucial and fundamentally protective. It can foster social cohesion, provide access to life-saving information, address psychosocial needs, and offer a stable and safe environment for those who need it most. It also contributes to solutions – providing children and youth with knowledge and skills to pursue meaningful lives, contribute to their communities and build a vision of a future.

Fifth, States have reiterated their commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to strengthening national child protection systems to ensure that they respond to the specific needs of girls and boys on the move of different ages and abilities, regardless of their migration status or whether they are accompanied by family members. Such systems would include asylum procedures that are adapted to children.

States also recognized the importance of improved data collection, and have committed to enhanced international cooperation in this regard. Collectively, we need to improve the quality of data available on children on the move. This is necessary to improve policy development, programming, and the achievement of solutions.

These commitments – and others set out in the Declaration – provide an important platform for our collective engagement in enhancing protection and solutions for children on the move. With respect to refugees, a comprehensive refugee response framework – the CRRF – was annexed to the Declaration, which UNHCR has been asked to work to apply in a number of operations. Ensuring that measures to promote protection and solutions for children will be an important aspect. Child protection must also be at the heart of the Global Compact on Refugees, which UNHCR has been asked to develop by 2018 based on the CRRF. We will ensure that the outcomes of this Dialogue contribute to the Global Compact.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Securing protection and solutions for children on the move can only be addressed effectively through cooperation among a wide range of actors: governments, national and international organizations, civil society, the private sector, and most importantly, children themselves, and their communities.

I am particularly pleased to welcome twelve youth delegates to this year's Dialogue, many of them participants in the Global Refugee Youth Consultations organized by UNHCR and the Women’s Refugee Commission earlier this year. I would like to thank them for their participation, and especially for helping us to understand the contributions that children and young people can make to their own protection, and to securing solutions.

I look forward to rich discussions over the next day and a half, drawing on your practical experience and expertise. This Dialogue of course builds on a number of important multi-stakeholder initiatives that have generated awareness and action in relation to children on the move, including through advocacy and the development of guiding principles.

The theme for this year’s Dialogue covers a wide spectrum of issues, but let us not allow this complexity to stand in the way of action, of building on promising practices, and of identifying effective measures to ensure that, together, we can strengthen protection and bring about a real difference in the lives of children on the move.

Their experiences now are the foundations on which they will build their future. Let’s join forces to make sure that these are sound ones – built on rights, compassion, and our shared humanity.

I thank you all for joining us and look forward to our discussions.