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International guidance concerning unaccompanied and separated children (Part 1)

Video about international guidance
My name is Benyam Dawit Mezmur. I’m from Ethiopia. I currently serve on the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. One of the main reasons why we actually talk about a migration crisis is because many countries that are state parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have not appreciated the fact that the provisions of the convention are applicable to children that are unaccompanied and separated, generally children on the move. There seems to be a perception among some countries that the provisions of the convention are only applicable to citizens. That’s not the case.
States have to appreciate, in its conceptualisation, formulation, and implementation, all the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, applicable not just only to their citizens, but also children that are within their jurisdiction. In a number of instances, these children are unaccompanied and separated children. It’s not a moral obligation. It’s a legal obligation. So one of the main reasons why the committees actually decided to focus first on the principles, and then second covering the whole gamut, starting from country of origin, transit, destination, but also including return, is because a number of the violations actually happen at different stages. And in this whole process, frontline workers have a very significant role to play.
So someone who’s involved in age-determination processes, if that person does not have the necessary resources, doesn’t necessarily have the necessary training, does not appreciate the fundamental-, just the basics of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is a very high likelihood that that person might do something that would violate the rights of a child. Someone who’s working for immigration, someone who’s into law enforcement; these are critical role players in the context of children’s rights in international migration.
One of the reasons why we emphasise in the Joint General Comment about the issue of firewalls, this is making sure that there is a division between law enforcement on the one hand and those that are actually doing service delivery on the other. It’s also to make sure that we uphold the rights of children, because in a number of contexts, children do not come forward to contact frontline workers, including people that are involved in education, health care, and so forth, because they’re worried that some of the information that they have would be communicated to law enforcement, which often, they actually want to avoid for a number of concerns and fears.
So all these frontline workers have a very significant role to play in upholding the rights of children. Frontline workers could also be people that are social workers, that are going to serve as guardians, and so forth. One of the crises of the current migration crisis is a shortage of guardians. And one of the benefits that children that are unaccompanied and separated particularly should benefit from is the issue of guardianship. We have seen as a committee in a number of countries where the guardianship system is actually very weak. In few exceptions, the guardianship system does not even exist. In some instances, one person happens to be a guardian for 10, 50, or even 100 children. And one of the elements-.
the critical elements of the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is attention to detail, with emphasis on individual assessment. If a frontline worker does not necessarily have the attention to detail capacity, the time, the resources, and an appreciation of the provisions of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, even as a guardian, will not be able to appreciate the needs and challenges, but also the rights of the child that he or she is a guardian for. So their capacity and their appreciation of children’s rights is absolutely important.
One of the significant roles that frontline workers play is in relation to the upholding of the so-called four cardinal principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. One of the critical problems that we face in the context of unaccompanied and migrant children, for instance, relates to non-discrimination In a number of systems, they are discriminated against. And if frontline workers actually appreciate the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of age, on the basis of disability, on the basis of ethnic background, language, and so forth, they could play a very significant role. They could also play a very important role in relation to the best interests of the child.
The same applies to the right to life, survival, and development, and child participation. There have been a number of recorded examples where frontline workers are actually capacitated and have the knowledge and skills about child participation, and they’ve been able to get the best out of children to understand what these challenges are, why they are unaccompanied, whether or not there are families in close-by locations, whether or not reunification could be an option, and so forth. If we get it right at the beginning, where frontline workers intervene, then it pays its dividends, not just only in the immediate, but also in the mid-term to long-term.
If we actually get it wrong at the level of the front line workers, it also has very long-lasting, not just only physical and emotional, but also mental consequences for the child as the child goes through the migration process.

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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