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How to make the global compacts on migration and refugees work for children on the move

Recent large-scale movements of refugees and migrants have drawn attention to the need for global and coordinated action for peaceful, orderly and comprehensive approaches to refugees and migrants. In 2016 in New York UN Member States adopted a Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, in which they committed to “fully protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status.” As a way of doing this they agreed to develop two global compacts – the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

‘An historic opportunity’

There is a risk that the phrase becomes a cliché before it is fully grasped and acted on by the world’s governments. But the global compacts – on refugees and on migration – are just that: a historic opportunity for states to mobilise the resources, commitment and political will needed to protect and care for all children on the move. And as the start of the negotiations on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration approaches, the time has come for governments to put their mouths where their money is. But while money is very important, what is more important is the willingness of governments to see the bigger picture of migration and displacement and to approach the negotiations looking beyond their own respective geographic, political and migratory situation in mind.

In early December, a meeting took place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at which governments, joined by UN agencies and civil society took stock of a process of consultations, which ran throughout 2017 and discussed the way forward to the start of the intergovernmental negotiations in February 2018. Based on these discussions, taking the pulse of participating states, and taking into account the expert input received throughout 2017, the two co-facilitator states, Mexico and Switzerland, will produce the initial draft to kick off the negotiations. That will be a difficult balancing act, given the high expectations raised by the text of the New York Declaration, the direction and solutions pointed by experts and specialist UN bodies, and, on the other hand, the starting positions of states, many of which, including the UK, focus almost exclusively on improved law enforcement cooperation, border control and border management. And the insistence that there is a clear distinction between refugees (deserving protection, support), on one end of the migration continuum, and economic migrants (not deserving protection) – one of the three main premises, or red lines, of the UK government with respect to the migration compact. Those of us who work on child trafficking and follow the developments in Europe understand the limits of categories such as ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’, ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’, which do not reflect the real stories of children and adults arriving on the shores of Europe after dangerous journeys, some of which have spanned a number of countries and have lasted for years. Children, and adults, can move in and out of any of these categories throughout their journeys and any labels we choose to apply to their cases are not indicative of higher or lower risks or protection needs.

UNICEF published a report on the eve of the stock-taking meeting in Mexico, which shows that national, regional and local governments around the world are already working with partners to welcome, empower and protect migrant and refugee children.

The case studies featured in the report were chosen to display geographical diversity and highlight efforts in low-, medium and high-income contexts that are consistent with each of the six policy goals of UNICEF’s Agenda for Action. They show work under way for children in their communities of origin, as they transit across borders, and in countries of destination. Several of the case studies have long track records of success. Others are work in progress, but offer examples of initiatives that are evolving to keep up with changing circumstances and needs. Most of these practices can be replicated in different contexts around the world.

As governments grapple with ways to meet the expectations of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants – and fulfil their legal obligations to children established by the Convention on the Rights of the Child – these case studies can provide inspiration. Most importantly, they confirm that solutions can be found.

The report also highlights six essential policy areas where commitments and actions by governments and partners are needed to translate the New York Declaration into practice for migrant children:

1. Investing in strong national child protection systems to protect migrant children from exploitation and violence.

2. Political commitment to move towards ending the practice of detaining children because of their immigration status.

3. Registering the birth of all migrant children, providing reunification mechanisms to keep families together and give children legal status.

4. Comprehensive care and access to services that keep migrant children learning and staying healthy.

5. Addressing the causes that uproot children from their homes. Migration should be a choice, not a necessity.

6. Protecting migrant children from discrimination and xenophobia.

Unicef UK is asking the UK government to be a champion for children’s rights in the global compacts. While there is significant room for improvement in how we respond to the needs of the most vulnerable children on the move in the UK and how we uphold their rights, improvement is taking place, placing us ahead of a majority of countries. The immigration detention of children is one such area. Many countries still detain child victims of trafficking indefinitely or place them in ‘shelters’, which are in practice a form of deprivation of their liberty. The UK has made huge progress in this area in the past seven years and can make the case that ending child immigration detention does not present a threat to immigration control. Other such areas are the treatment of child victims of trafficking within the child protection system and the types of placements offered to unaccompanied and separated children – unlike a majority of countries, including European countries, the UK does not place them in large reception centres and provides them with access to the mainstream education and health systems. So, globally speaking, the UK has the authority, and therefore, I would say, the duty, to drive and show leadership in the negotiations on the migration compact as it comes to children’s rights. Defending its red lines is too low an ambition and one that doesn’t make history. And this, as we said, is a historic opportunity. So let’s make the most of it!


By Stefan Stoyanov, Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser at Unicef UK