As signatories of the UN Convention of the Right of the Child, EU member states have long been committed to making the best interests of the child a primary consideration for public authorities. The new Treaty of Lisbon further commits the European Union and its member states to protecting the rights of the child in all internal and external policies. In December 2011, the protection of the rights of the child was declared an explicit priority for EU external action and efforts to promote human rights and democracy in the world.
Migrant children constitute a particularly vulnerable group. As children and as migrants they face poverty, social exclusion, exploitation and multiple risks, including risks to health. How to translate Europe’s commitment to protecting the rights of children in the context of migration, irrespective of nationality, legal status or social background, remains a particular challenge. Special attention is required to ensure that the rights and principles laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child apply to migrant children without conditions.
While respect for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is one key component of EU policies on migration, repatriation and a credible threat of forced return are held to be indispensable tools in Europe’s fight against illegal migration. Prompted by the lack of child-focused migration research, and concerns about a possible impact of repatriation on children’s psychosocial health, UNICEF decided to explore how repatriation and reintegration realities interact with children’s mental health. Focusing on children repatriated from Germany and Austria to Kosovo, this study aims to provide empirical evidence to allow for a more informed discussion aimed at protecting the best interests of children. How to make the rights of children an integral part of migration and repatriation policies thus lies at the heart of this research.
The evidence presented indeed points to an alarming situation: one out of two children describe their return as the worst experience of their lives. Especially foreign-born and minority children experience their repatriation as traumatic. Every third repatriated child suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome; nearly one in two teenagers suffers from depression and one in four reports suicidal ideation. Reintegration realities in Kosovo today are such that key factors that could help these children recover are almost non-existent: many returned children live in abject poverty, 70 percent of minority children drop out of school upon return, and the mental health care system in Kosovo is simply unable to meet the treatment needs identified in repatriated children and parents.
Europe’s commitment to act in the child’s best interests is put to the test in every return decision taken. The responsibility to protect children rights, however, does not end at a country’s border. On the contrary, as this study underlines repatriation practices and reintegration realities greatly impact a child’s wellbeing and psychosocial health. As a child’s health is a sine qua non for the exercise of all other rights, health considerations must take precedence over legal and political concerns in sending and receiving countries.
The report is available here.