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International guidance concerning unaccompanied and separated children (Part 1)

Video about international guidance

In this video we hear from Benyam Dawit Mezmur. Benyam is an academic who specialises in children’s rights law. He is a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Vice-Chairman of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) of the African Union. Benyam explains to us the importance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and how it is fully applicable to unaccompanied and separated children on the move. He also explains the important role of frontline workers in upholding the rights of all children, including those who are unaccompanied and separated.

We would also like to thank UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent for allowing us to use additional film footage you will see in this video.

The United Nations (UN) has adopted resolutions and issued guidance on the way that States should respond when unaccompanied or separated children arrive from other countries. This is part of a larger body of international law and standards on children, refugees and migrants and of standards applicable to those of us working in organisations responsible for assisting children on the move.

Our work with children is guided by these relevant international laws, agreements, treaties, guidance and standards. Over the next three course pages we will try and summarise some of the international guidance that has particularly informed the content of this course.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the United Nations in 1989. The Committee on the Rights of the Child – the body of specialists which monitors how the CRC is being implemented in your countries – can issue sets of ‘General Comments’. These Comments set out guidance for governments to enable all children under their jurisdiction to exercise their rights.

The CRC has been fully ratified by 196 countries. Once a country has ratified the CRC, it is known as a ‘State Party’. When a governing authority of a country ratifies the Convention, it means they have made a commitment to implement it. It is an expectation that States will take what is written in the CRC and transform it into national laws and policy. Some governments, however, have officially informed the UN they will not implement particular parts of the Convention.

It is important we read and understand the different articles in the CRC as we all have a duty to make sure all rights are acted upon. Below we highlight just a few of the articles that are particularly relevant to our work with unaccompanied and separated children.

Article 20 specifies how children who are not living with their family are ‘entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State’. The article says that ‘States Parties shall in accordance with their national laws ensure alternative care for such a child’.

Article 9 tells us that States Parties must ensure that children are not separated from their parents against their will, unless ordered by a court of law when separation is in the child’s best interests.

The best interests of the child

Article 3.1 shows how the best interests of a child must be a primary consideration in all the decisions that are taken and everything we do to support and protect them.

‘In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’ (CRC, Article 3.1).
This means that when we make decisions with, and for, children, their best interests must be a primary consideration.

Respect for the views of the child

Article 12 is about a child’s right to express their views and to have them fully taken into account in decisions that are made about their lives. This is the same whether a child is in their own country or in another country.
‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child’ (CRC, Article 12.1).
Article 12 also emphasises the importance of a child being given the opportunity to participate and express his or her views in ‘any judicial or administrative proceedings’ affecting them. For example, this might be during an immigration hearing where a decision is being made about an unaccompanied child and whether or not they can stay in a particular country. We will be considering the principle of full and meaningful participation later in the course.


Article 2 specifies how children are entitled to realise their rights without discrimination of any kind.
‘States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status’ (CRC, Article 2).
It also means that children who move from one country to another are entitled to have all their rights guaranteed in a country in which they are not a national.

Right to life, to survive and to develop

Article 6 clearly says that children have a right to life and States have an obligation to ensure children’s survival and development.
‘States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life’ and ‘States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child’ (CRC, Article 6).

We do suggest you familiarise yourself with all the articles in the CRC which can be found in the ‘See Also’ section below.

On 18th December 2019, a very important new United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the ‘Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children’ was unanimously adopted by all countries. The Resolution builds on the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children and focuses specifically on children at risk of losing parental care and children without parental care. We would urge you to read this important new Resolution.

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Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

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