Child immigration detention: Why EU states must cut it out

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A minor detained in a centre in Priolo, Sicily. [©Tdh / Francois Struzik]

European governments are treating children like criminals by detaining them because of their migration status. It’s time to care for them as the children they are, writes Lavinia Liardo.

Lavinia Liardo is a senior policy officer for child rights organisation Terre des Hommes.

All children – from Strasbourg to Syria – deserve to be treated as children before being viewed as refugees, migrants or any other label. They deserve our care and protection, our love and support.

But instead, they are being detained for no other reason other than their migration status.

Treated like criminals, vulnerable kids who have fled war and persecution are locked up at the expense of their own health and psychosocial development. To make matters worse, children are sometimes separated from their parents and loved ones – detained alone in an alien country.

Yet the practice of locking up refugee and migrant children while their migration status is being decided is still rife across Europe. Hungary has already started holding refugees – including children – in guarded camps encircled with razor wire while deciding what to do with them next.

This is why civil society organisations and other agencies are calling for EU countries to end this practice once and for all, ahead of the European Forum on the Rights of the Child which kicks off today (7 November 2017). The Forum is focusing on children deprived of liberty and alternatives to detention.

It is imperative that countries in the European Union and throughout the world ditch the laws and policies that allow child refugees and migrants to be detained – finally bringing their actions in line with international human and child rights law. The health, wellbeing and future of these children must take precedent over other migration policies.

To do this, humane alternatives to detention must be brought into use immediately. EU countries must swap detention centres for accommodating communities, allowing refugee and migrant children to thrive in a caring, unrestricted environment that benefits children, families and host countries alike.

This approach has many benefits. The International Detention Coalition has found that refugee and migrant families who authorities engage with rather than detain comply with between 70 and 99 percent of a country’s migration procedures – a percentage which drops sharply when people are incarcerated.

Humane alternatives to detention can also cost as little as one-fifth of the price of limiting children’s freedom of movement in a migration centre. They provide a cheaper, more effective way of caring for migrant and refugee kids which simultaneously complies with international human rights law.

But the EU’s responsibility to stand up for the rights of children does not stop at Europe’s borders. A unique opportunity to ban the practice of locking up children while their migration status is being determined is on the horizon with the negotiation of two UN ‘compacts’ – the global compact on refugees and the global compact on migration.

While stamping out child immigration detention within Europe, the EU must also throw its weight behind making sure both these compacts rule out the chance of child refugees and migrants being routinely incarcerated around the world.

To do this, light must be shed on the true extent of child immigration detention across the globe – something the UN will look into in an upcoming study on all children currently deprived of liberty. But this study is at serious risk of being mothballed due to a lack of funding from UN member states.

Only small contributions from EU member states would be enough to make this study a reality. It would ensure that every child detained solely for being a refugee or migrant is accounted for – reason alone to make sure funding is provided.

Finally, the true experts on the damage which child immigration detention has on children are kids themselves – especially those who have experienced it. The voices of these children must not be side-lined, but instead allowed to shape both EU and global policies on how migrant and refugee children are cared for.

Locking up children purely because of where they come from breaks international law. It fails to protect children and robs them of the bright future they risked their lives travelling across land and sea for.

It’s time the EU put these children’s future first, replacing the damage which immigration detention can do to children with the better life and opportunities that every child should enjoy.