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What we want for children in the global compacts on refugees and migrants

We expect the impact of the initiative to carry beyond the global compacts and to influence the way all children on the move are protected and supported.

Rignam Wangkhang/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

The extent and diversity of human rights abuses impacting children on the move and other children affected by migration is truly worrisome. In many cases it reaches such alarming levels that it is referred to as a human rights crisis that particularly affects children.

The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the outcome of the September 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, expresses the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale. It contains a number of important commitments to children, as well as plans for how to build on these commitments. These include negotiations leading to an international conference, and the adoption in 2018 of both a ‘global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration’ and a ‘global compact on refugees’.

The next 18 months thus offer a key opportunity to raise the profile, understanding, implementation, capacity, and accountability for the rights of children on the move and other children affected by migration. Our new initiative ‘child rights in the global compacts’, co-chaired by Terre des Hommes and Save the Children, aims to ensure that both compacts are adopted with coherent and harmonised child-focused goals, targets and indicators in line with the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda.

Children on the move

The reasons, patterns and consequences of children’s movement are diverse and complex. For many children, leaving their home communities promises the chance of a better life; an escape from poverty, abuse, violence or conflict; and a better opportunity to access education, and other needs and basic services.

As flows become increasingly complex and mixed in nature, the distinction between ‘types’ of migrants is often not clear cut. This is particularly relevant for children. Children who are on the move often slip in and out of different migration categories – migrant, refugee, ‘victims of trafficking’, etc. – within the same journey or over time. Whilst different normative regimes of protection exist for some of these migratory categories, it is increasingly clear that all children regardless of status or reason for movement need support structures that are child-focussed, coherent, holistic, and coordinated both within and between countries.

The concept of ‘children on the move’ seeks to create such a holistic approach, and we recommend that this framework be used in the drafting of the global compacts. The umbrella definition of “children on the move” is:

Children moving for a variety of reasons, voluntarily or involuntarily, within or between countries, with or without their parents or other primary caregivers, and whose movement, while it may open up opportunities, might also place them at risk (or at an increased risk) of economic or sexual exploitation, abuse, neglect and violence”.

This definition therefore includes:

• children who could qualify as ‘trafficked’ in some countries;

• children who are migrating to pursue better life opportunities, to look for work or education, or to escape exploitative or abusive situations at home;

• children displaced by conflict and natural disasters.

All of these children might find themselves at risk of various forms of abuse or exploitation. This concept, by highlighting the common risks and challenges faced by these children but also their differences in terms of gender, age, and agency, aims to re-focus interventions and ensure coherent policies by placing the protection of the child at the very centre of the discussion.

Next steps

With the commitment of states to “comply with our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child” (New York Declaration, para. 32) as the point of departure, and drawing upon the specific guidance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child Committee as to the nature and scope of these commitments, the efforts and resources of this initiative will be focused on developing and advocating for a ‘children on the move’ approach across the two global compacts. We advocate for a common approach to be used in both compacts based on the principle that primary consideration should be given to the best interests of the child and independent of a child’s migration or residency status. 

The initiative will begin with experts drafting a working document on child rights in the global compacts, to be written in broad consultation through ad hoc regional meetings and a Global Conference on Children on the Move to be held in Berlin on 12-13 June 2017. This will be an inter-agency conference, and include participation from civil society, UN agencies (UNHCR, CRC, UNICEF and IOM), the private sector, philanthropy/foundations, and state governments.

The working document emerging from this event – led by civil society but with the key input from a variety of stakeholders – will outline the goals, targets and indicators that the two global compacts should include in order to fully reflect commitments to children’s rights in the context of large flows of migrants and refugees. We will focus on five key child rights commitments referred to in the New York Declaration and seek to ensure they operationalised in line with the most protective legal and policy framework available across both compacts. In particular:

Non-discrimination: integration into host communities, and end to discrimination, racism and xenophobia by empowering and supporting both children on the move and host communities and ensuring an equitable distribution of resources within local communities to benefit all.

Best interests of the child: foremost and primary consideration should be given at all times to the best interests of the child. Children’s right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them should always be respected.

Access to services: all children on the move should have access to essential services such as protection, health, education and psychosocial services. Education for children should be guaranteed within a few months of arrival and budgetary provision to facilitate this should be prioritised. The protection of children from violence and exploitation should be a key priority.

End child immigration detention: end of child immigration detention or return to countries where they are not safe. Instead, children should be cared for in a safe and nurturing environment, appropriate for a child.

Durable solutions: increased access to safe and regular entry routes should be guaranteed. These would include: family reunification; humanitarian visas or private sponsorships; implemented commitments to increase resettlement; and the establishment of a permanent framework for responsibility sharing in the refugee compact.

The conference will also be an opportunity to feed into the consultations for the “joint general comment” on the human rights of children in the context of international migration.

Following the conference, all stakeholders involved in this initiative will continue their work at the global, regional and national levels using the working document as a touchstone for their advocacy. While initially focused on the global compacts, the expectation is for the impact of the initiative to carry beyond the global compacts and to influence the way all children on the move are protected and supported.

About the authors

Daniela Reale is Save the Children Lead on children on the move. Daniela has over 15 years’ experience working on child protection and child migration and trafficking with Save the Children. Daniela pioneered the concept of ‘children on the move’, advocating for this approach to be adopted in a variety of contexts and by various agencies. She holds a degree in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics and a degree in international relations and political science from the University of Florence.

Ignacio Packer is Secretary General of the Terre Des Hommes International Federation and leads the www.destination-unknown.org campaign on children on the move. He is an international expert on child rights and social issues, and is strongly engaged in global advocacy on protection frameworks for people on the move with a particular focus on children and youth. He also worked for the European Bank for Latin America, KPMG, Médecins Sans Frontières, the European Association for Development and Health and for the Swiss Tropical Institute.


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