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Panel discussion on unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents and human rights

Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

35th regular session of the Human Rights Council

9 June 2017

Thank you, Mr President.

Distinguished panellists,
Colleagues, friends,

I welcome the Council’s attention to the urgent subject of human rights violations suffered by many unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents. UNICEF reports the global number of children on the move on their own has reached a record high. At least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were recorded in some 80 countries in the combined years of 2015 and 2016, up from 66,000 in 2010 and 2011.

Many of these children are fleeing situations of conflict and violence. Others are escaping poverty, discrimination, and the consequences of natural disasters and climate change. They may have become separated from their families during their perilous journeys, but some children migrate entirely independently, while others intend to join family members. Above all, they are children -- and while all migrants may be subjected to abuses, the fear and suffering of children and adolescents who migrate is particularly severe. We must do our utmost to ensure all States do a better job of providing protection and assistance for all migrant children.

Because there are virtually no channels for regular migration, most children on the move will seek out the services of smugglers – and some become captives in extremely hazardous and exploitative conditions. UNICEF reports that about 28% of trafficking victims are children. They may be forced to work in slavery-like conditions; they may also fall victim to trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, forced marriage and sexual slavery.

Restrictive and over-securitized migration policies not only disregard migrant children's welfare, they exacerbate risks by driving children into the hands of unscrupulous networks. Similarly, migration governance systems which fail to take into account the child's views will heighten the risks faced by children who are determined to continue to try and reach their intended destination. We must acknowledge significant human rights violations these children are fleeing, recognise their strong instinct to survive and thrive, and provide them with safety.

The best interests of the child must guide all relevant policies, including with regard to age assessments; entry, stay or expulsion; access to basic services; family reunification; and appointment of guardians. In immigration detention, unaccompanied children are frequently exposed to shockingly inadequate conditions, and studies demonstrate that even short periods of detention can cause durable harm. The detention of children because of their or their parents’ migration status is never in the best interest of the child. It always constitutes a human rights violation.

I urge in-depth determination of each child’s need for protection, and the harm which may result from deportation. If a child is sent back to the same conditions which compelled his or her departure, the result may be repeat migration through increasingly dangerous routes. There is also a risk of re-victimising children who are returned into the hands of their traffickers.

In last year’s landmark New York Declaration, Member States acknowledged a shared responsibility to protect the human rights of all migrants. They recognised the particular vulnerability of all migrant children, especially those who are unaccompanied or separated. As consultations towards the global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration continue over the next six months, we need to strengthen our resolve to uphold the rights of all children on the move.

My Office is leading the development, within the Global Migration Group, of principles and guidelines on migrants in vulnerable situations that aim to ensure meaningful protection of migrant children on the ground. Other tools developed by OHCHR provide special measures for the protection and support of child victims of trafficking. And the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and the Committee on the Rights of the Child are currently working on a general comment on children in the context of international migration.

We need to listen to migrant children and adolescents - such as Gholamreza Hassanpour, here today. We need to build a global framework which ensures future generations are spared the hellish journeys far too many boys and girls face today.

I look forward to your discussions.