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Seminar on Migration: Unaccompanied Minors and Forced Returns

19-20 February 2009
French Red Cross
Council of Europe

Opening Address
by Mrs Corien Jonker (Netherlands, EPP/CD)
Chair Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Colleagues,

One of the key partners of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It is therefore a particular pleasure for me to take part in this international seminar and to represent our Committee here.

I would like to start by thanking the French Red-Cross for having taken the initiative of organising this seminar and focusing on the important issues of unaccompanied migrant minors and forced returns.

Last year in June, the Assembly discussed in detail the activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross on the basis of a report prepared by the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population. This is a sign of the importance that the Assembly attaches to the ICRC.
Most recently, in December last year, our Committee visited Las Palmas where we took part in a conference on irregular migrants and asylum seekers arriving by sea. During our visit we also witnessed a simulated rescue operation and visited a reception centre. We were therefore able to see first hand the dedicated way in which the Red Cross personnel work with irregular migrants and asylum seekers on Europe’s southern shores.

The issue of forced return and the plight of unaccompanied migrant minors comes up time and time again in the work of our Committee. Last month a number of individual members initiated a declaration on the worrying situation in Lampedusa in Italy.

The Red Cross is carrying out invaluable work to ease the hardship of irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Europe and elsewhere.

Our Committee is working with the same objective, however with different means. The Committee, whose members are parliamentarians with different political affiliation from the Council of Europe member states, have three main priorities:

- to strengthen the rights of migrants, refugees and IDPs

- to promote intercultural dialogue, tolerance and integration of migrant communities

- to work for good migration management including both regular and irregular migration.

The most important tool of the Committee is to prepare reports and propose Resolutions to member states of the Council of Europe and Recommendations to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. These are adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly. I cordially invite you to take note of these recommendations and to apply them in your daily work at home. 

The Committee has drafted a number of recommendations relevant for the topics of this seminar and is currently working on two issues of direct relevance to it.

The first issue is on detention of irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Europe and the second on Unaccompanied Minors.

An important resolution was adopted in 2008 focusing on Europe’s “Boat People” examining the issue of reception, detention and return of boat people arriving in Malta, Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey. This report identified clear human rights and humanitarian gaps in the treatment of persons arriving on Europe’s Southern shores. Overcrowding, poor medical treatment, lengthy detention, insufficient legal advice and assistance, were all highlighted as problems.

In line with the objectives of the Council of Europe, the Committee on Migration in its work focuses on the human rights of the individual migrant, whether he or she is an asylum-seeker, an irregular migrant or a regular migrant.

As we know, at the core of human rights is the dignity of the human being.

This is what the Council of Europe, and the Committee on Migration stand for; and this is what we devote our work on.

At the same time I realise that you as representatives of national organisations of the Red Cross Societies are confronted more often with the harsh realities on the ground. The realities where considerations at political level of so-called political “realism” and populism often harm the rights of individual migrants. This is particularly true in such sensitive area as forced returns. –There is a challenge that both us as members of the Parliamentary Assembly and you in your daily work are confronted with. 

Two crucial issues risk being overlooked in the current discussions on returns.

First, in general, most of our member states do not see what to work yet on the fact that in future we will need migrants team thied countries in Europe. The chances of getting through this message within the context of the current economic crisis are scaringly minimal. It only will deeping the clash between reception and return in our member states.

Second, not having a proper return policy for those who are not entitled to asylum, is not an option. It is evident that not all who so wish should be granted asylum and legalised status for stay. Granting asylum to those who are in fact labour migrants and confusing the barriers between migration and asylum would only undermine the very essence of asylum.

This is also one of the basic principles of the Council of Europe’s Twenty Guidelines on Forced Return, adopted in 2005, at the instigation of the Assembly. It is not necessarily in conflicht with fundamental human rights and the dignity of that migrant.    

It is therefore of great importance that discussions concerning the highly sensitive issue of forced returns will continue at national and international levels, both separately and jointly between the political and humanitarian actors. We need to continue to seek common approaches that would help build bridges between the factual human rights and humanitarian concerns in our member states and our ideals and wishes.  We need to work towards a sound and realistic return policy overall in Europe.

The best way to start thinking about forced returns might actually not be to start thinking about forced returns, but about voluntary returns.

As an alternative to compulsory removal of irregular migrants, assisted voluntary return programs, like the ones conceived by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), are beneficial both for migrants and for host countries.

Through these programmes, returnees are given valuable assistance, sometimes financial, and advice concerning economic and social aspects of reintegration in their home countries.

Returns are less costly when compared to systems of detention and deportation. The programmes also often contribute to improved relations between the host country and the country of origin.

Most importantly though, migrants who participate in these programmes can generally leave the host country with their human dignity more or less intact which does not happen when forced returns are carried out.

The Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population has also been greatly concerned about the issue of unaccompanied minors. In 2005 the Assembly adopted a recommendation on “Protection and assistance for separated children seeking asylum (available to participants in the room)” and as I mentioned earlier the Committee is currently preparing a report on “Unaccompanied minors in Europe: issues of arrival, stay and return”.

For our Committee it is of utmost importance that minors are identified and treated separately from adults. Accurate age assessment is essential to ensure that all minors are treated as such from their arrival onwards. Age assessment is very delicate and there are serious concerns about the accuracy of bone density tests. A further issue for us is access of unaccompanied minors to the asylum system.

We are concerned to ensure that adequate reception and care facilities are made available. These facilities should provide for the basic needs of minors and in particular their health and educational needs. Guarantees should be in place to ensure that unaccompanied minors do not face abuse, bullying or any other type of ill treatment while in care facilities. Detention should only be used as a last resort.
Some unaccompanied minors end up on the streets of Europe and steps need to be taken to protect them from trafficking and other criminal networks.

The Assembly recognises that the challenge for European society today is to ensure that these unaccompanied minors are guaranteed their rights and that the cornerstone of all policies is their “best interests”.

I can perhaps end by saying I am myself organising a meeting for our Committee in the Hague next month. It may surprise you to know that the main issue we will cover in this meeting is the issue of returns and also issues linked to detention and unaccompanied minors. We therefore very much share the same concerns and priorities. It is impossible to invite you all but a delegation of the Red Cross is very much welcome.

I am looking forward to these two days of seminar and hope that we will be able to share and generate knowledge, as well as tie bonds for the future. I hope we can better the situation for all migrants in general and migrant children in particular.

I would like to wish you a very successful seminar!

Thank you.

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