Speech by Minister of State David Stanton, T.D.,
at ‘Perilous Passage: Child Refugee Symposium’ hosted by the Children’s Rights Alliance
Chartered Accountants House, Dublin 2
5 April 2018
Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am delighted to be here to address this very important event and I would like to thank Tanya and her team in the Children’s Rights Alliance for inviting me to speak. Since the migration crisis began in 2015, the Children’s Rights Alliance has been at the forefront in championing the rights of migrant and refugee children both at home and abroad and in ensuring that our response to the crisis has had a child-centred approach. I value the very positive working relationship between the Alliance and the Department of Justice and Equality and I am sure that this will continue into the future.
To try to understand what has happened in Europe since the crisis began in 2015 we must first examine the context. Poverty, hunger, climate change, war and protracted conflict situations, are, and will continue to be, the drivers of mass migration and forced displacement. According to UNHCR, there are over 65 million forcibly displaced persons globally, and of these, over 22 million people are classed as refugees. These are the highest ever recorded levels and now surpass the situation that existed at the end of World War II. Just three countries account for 55% of the world’s refugees – Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Just 17% of all displaced persons are currently hosted in Europe with more than 50% hosted in Africa and the Middle East. Some 84% of all refugees under the mandate of UNHCR are hosted in developing countries. Children account for approximately a third of the world’s population but over half of all refugees. More than 11 million children are refugees. That is a stark and sobering statistic, which should be at the forefront of our minds when planning and implementing our responses to all refugee situations.
At the height of the crisis, in 2015 and 2016, when more than a million people sought protection in the European Union, it soon became apparent that the Union was grossly unprepared to deal with a sudden and massive influx of applicants. The Union and its Member States has a long and proud history of supporting external humanitarian relief efforts; however, for the first time, a humanitarian crisis was developing on Europe’s shores and within its borders. New and innovative measures were quickly required to address the needs of those who were arriving daily and to stop people, many of them families with young children, from undertaking dangerous sea journeys in unsafe vessels and at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers.
The European Agenda on Migration was launched to provide a comprehensive response to the crisis and a number of important milestones have been achieved since, including the establishment of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU Trust Fund for Africa, the External Investment Plan, EU Relocation and Resettlement Programmes, and more recently, the Joint African Union-EU-UN Task Force and its Emergency Transit Mechanism from Libya. However, more is required and there is no room for complacency, particularly where the lives and safety of children are concerned.
The crisis also exposed the inherent weaknesses in the Union’s Common European Asylum System, which is now undergoing systematic reform following the publication of seven legislative proposals by the European Commission in 2016. A key part of this reform process is ensuring that the special reception and procedural needs of child applicants, be they accompanied or unaccompanied, are embedded in the legislation and, most importantly, will subsequently be implemented in practice. This includes lowering the age for the taking and registering of biometric data of child applicants from 14 years of age to 6 years of age. During the crisis, approximately 10,000 minors are believed to have gone missing across the EU. Reliable data and regular identification and registration of children is essential to protect their movement in the Union, to strengthen cross-border co-operation, and to enable successful family tracing and reunification when children have become separated from their parents or other primary caregiver and where this is understood to be in the best interests of the child.
Other important child protection reforms proposed in the new EU legislation include the early appointment of a representative for unaccompanied minors and access to appropriate education, healthcare, accommodation and other related supports for all children in the protection process. Last April, to guide this process and to promote harmonised standards for migrant and asylum seeking children across the EU, the European Commission issued a Communication on the protection of children in migration. It should be noted that many of the standards promoted by the European Commission are already in place in our national legislation and in our child protection system, particularly for unaccompanied minors, who are recognised as an especially vulnerable cohort.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has statutory responsibility for the care of unaccompanied minors in the State. It operates an ‘equity of care principle’ under which separated child refugees or separated children seeking asylum are afforded a standard of care that is equal to children who are ordinarily resident in Ireland. Each unaccompanied minor is appointed a Social Worker from the Separated Children Seeking Asylum Unit in Tusla. Additional specialised supports are available to meet their complex range of needs and the majority of children are placed with foster families. An individual assessment of the child is carried out upon their referral to Tusla and a statutory care plan is developed. The multi-disciplinary assessment also involves medical and educational assessments. Family tracing is also commenced. Additionally, aftercare services and supports are put in place for those who have “aged out” of the system to help them to transition to adult life.
Unlike in other EU Member States, an application for international protection is not a prerequisite for child protection supports to be made available to unaccompanied minors on their arrival in the State. An application for international protection on behalf of the child will be made by Tusla, provided that it is in the best interests of the child to do so. The International Protection Act 2015 requires that Tusla seeks legal advice in deciding whether or not to make an application on the child’s behalf. The Act also contains a number of important provisions related to the best interests of the child throughout the protection process, both for unaccompanied minors and for children who are accompanied by their parents or another responsible adult. The Children’s Rights Alliance worked with the Department to ensure that the appropriate safeguards were incorporated in the Bill prior to its enactment. It is a prime example of Government and civil society working constructively together to achieve a positive outcome for all.
Against the backdrop of the numbers that I have outlined earlier, the establishment of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme in 2015 and our commitment to accept up to 4,000 asylum seekers and refugees is a modest but meaningful contribution by the State in support of those who most need our protection. In implementing the programme, the Government has responded to the clear will of the people that we focus our support on assisting vulnerable families and children. Our Director of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, John Roycroft, is participating in the panel discussion later this morning and will present a more detailed overview of how we have prioritised families and children in the delivery of the programme and of the specific needs and vulnerabilities of this group on their arrival in the State and the challenges of their integration into our society. I will simply take the opportunity to say that half of all those currently admitted to the State under relocation and resettlement, from Greece and Lebanon respectively, are children. Of these children, almost 83% are 12 years of age or younger.
The State’s response to the protection of children during the migration crisis has not been limited to our participation in EU programmes. Following the All-Party Dáil Motion in November 2016, Tusla established the Calais Special Project to accept unaccompanied minors who were previously resident in the Calais camp and who expressed a wish to come to Ireland. In total, 13 separate missions to France were carried out by Tusla to identify unaccompanied minors during the implementation of the project. No child who expressed a wish to come to Ireland under this project was refused admission. Some 41 unaccompanied minors were brought into the State from Calais and were given “programme refugee” status on arrival to allow them to begin their new lives with certainty of their legal status in the country from day one. Family reunification procedures have also been initiated for many of these children. As no other unaccompanied minors have been identified as eligible for the project, it has reached its natural conclusion. However, my colleague, Minister Zappone, is keen to make the capacity developed by Tusla under the project available to the continued implementation of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme and appropriate arrangements to put this in place are now underway. This is a very welcome development and is an example of the cross-Departmental and “whole of Government” response which will be required to implement our remaining commitments under the IRPP in a timely fashion.
Currently, we have met approximately half of our original commitment under the IRPP. This is due to a number of factors, most significantly the much lower number of eligible applicants registered for relocation in Italy and Greece – almost 34,000, rather than the 160,000 asylum seekers envisaged in the two EU Council Decisions. Minister Flanagan and I, and indeed all of Government, remain committed to admitting the full cohort pledged under the IRPP. To achieve this, we have increased our resettlement pledges for this year and next to 600 per year and we will shortly launch the first call for applications under the Family Reunification Humanitarian Admission Programme. I expect that these programmes will continue to have a strong focus on the admission of families and children.
Today’s event is a timely reminder that children are an especially vulnerable refugee and asylum seeking group. We will continue to prioritise our support for children and families in our current and future plans for resettlement and other forms of humanitarian admission. The promotion and protection of children’s rights should also be a central tenant of the two UN Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees; which are currently being developed, and of the ongoing EU process to reform the Common European Asylum System.
I mentioned earlier that there are more than 11 million child refugees worldwide. Each of these children has their own individual hopes, dreams and ambitions. Each one is entitled to have their rights as set out under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child upheld and to be supported to reach their full potential in all areas of their lives. Every child has the right to life, survival and development. We expect this for our children. We should accept no less for refugee children.