The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. This should be a time to celebrate the achievements of the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world, with only the United States not a signatory. Instead we are seeing real threats to its implementation.
There is one issue where this can be seen most clearly. Where children’s rights are not only under threat but have become part of the political discourse to fuel division and fear, leading to societies shifting from protecting children to abandoning them, criminalising them and at worst leading to their untimely death.
Since 2015 there has been a significant increase in children’s movement. Unicef estimates that nearly 50 million children have migrated across borders or been forcibly displaced. An enormous figure compared to the estimated eight million children living in orphanages or institutions. The recent focus on redirecting the flow of funding from orphanages to family and community-based solutions is a positive step towards ensuring all children grow up in a loving family, but we must also ensure that sufficient attention is paid to protecting the rights of the 50 million children on the move.
In the Americas, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the increase in children on the move has been stimulated by poverty, lack of community-level development opportunities, gang violence, high rates of sexual violence and some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Children feel they have no option but to take the perilous trip to the US. Instead of upholding their duty to protect these children and facilitating their reunification with families, the current US administration has used the situation as a political football. At least 2,737 children were forcibly separated from their families on the border in 2018, although the actual figure is thought to be several thousand higher.
In Europe there was a similar increase in children seeking legal protection in the same period, with the majority of children fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan. At first, some European countries provided immediate protection and a full package of resettlement. However, political parties have generated a discourse of fear of immigration, resulting in countries such as Sweden and Germany making it far harder for even unaccompanied children to seek protection. In Greece, children who have taken years to make the journey to Europe, risking trafficking and abuse are now stuck. Despite the majority having a family member in one of the European countries it is highly unlikely they will be reunified and instead they are struggling to make a life in Greece.
Yet, in both these corridors of movement, funding to protect and support these highly vulnerable children is drying up as the children’s situation becomes more fragile and complex. The UNHCR reported last year that funds available to help refugees and migrants are steadily falling – with contributions reaching just 55 per cent of the $8.2 billion of funding required in 2018, compared to 56.6 per cent in 2017 and 58 per cent in 2016. The political climate has resulted in governments cutting back on crucial legal and social services for these children. They are being denied the right to family life despite this being enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and face significantly detrimental conditions jeopardising their right to education and development as well as impacting on their long term mental health and opportunities.
More must be done to prevent unnecessary family separation and safeguard and uphold the rights of unaccompanied children through practical measures including legal representation for all children, and strengthened case management systems to avert separations and allow for reunification. Family reunification should be promoted where possible, and increased funding for support services in origin and transit countries is essential to ensure that children and families who are deported can travel safely and rebuild their lives. This vacuum can only be filled by philanthropists who are willing to challenge the political discourse to ensure that children are seen as children first and foremost and in this year of the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC to promote the full implementation of all the rights enshrined in this convention.
Amanda Griffith is Chief Executive of Family for Every Child