Migrant children: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2016

14 October 2016

Migrant children, United Nations General Assembly, 71st session, Third Committee, Statement by the ICRC.

Daily events in the Mediterranean, South-East Asia, the Americas, the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere show the great ongoing suffering of migrants and their families. All too often, the international system is unable or unwilling to protect migrants, including children, and to respond to their most basic needs. Legal status determines individual migrants' rights, but, most importantly, the provision of humanitarian assistance and protection must be driven by their specific vulnerabilities and needs, which may well change at different stages of their journey. For that reason, it is essential to establish early identification and referral mechanisms for the most vulnerable individuals, in particular children. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would like to share with you our perspective on:

  • The vulnerabilities of migrant children
  • Their humanitarian needs and our response

Migrant children are particularly vulnerable. Before they are afforded protection as children, they may be required to prove their age. When this is uncertain, the individual should be presumed to be, and treated as, a child.

In the course of their journey, children may find themselves alone for example as a result of rescue operations or the process of registration, while boarding trains or buses, or when somebody needs to obtain medical treatment and the rest of the family has to move on. The authorities often separate children from their family or the group with which they are travelling, with the best intention of giving preferential treatment to the most vulnerable, but this action may involuntarily cause more distress than relief.

In this context, the ICRC reminds authorities of their obligations under international law to prevent family separation, to preserve family unity and to support families in their search for missing relatives and in clarifying their fate and whereabouts. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement helps to prevent separation and works to trace family members when the child genuinely wishes to do so and gives his or her consent. If a child is afraid that finding his or her family will have a negative impact on his or her asylum claim, then he or she might regrettably decide not to request family tracing. That is why States' assessment of the protection and assistance to be offered to a child should be based primarily on his or her vulnerabilities and needs, rather than being focused on the location of family members. States should, however, act concertedly to facilitate swift family reunification when it serves the best interests of the child.

Migrant children are also at risk owing to the possibility of immigration detention. Detention of migrants often leaves children, whether held separately or with their families, in an alien environment, uncertain about their future and unable to understand why they have been detained. Detention can indeed have an adverse effect on their physical and mental health. Children's developmental needs cannot be met in such a setting.

The ICRC engages in confidential dialogue with States to ensure that they fulfil their obligations to protect migrant children. It reminds States that detention of any children, including migrants, should be avoided. Children shall be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate duration. Their best interests shall be a primary consideration in all actions concerning them, including decisions to initiate or continue detention.

Furthermore, when a State is planning to return migrants, in particular children, each individual's situation must be carefully assessed and the principle of non-refoulement must be respected.
States have expressed their commitment to treating every individual with humanity through the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Let us work together towards better respect for international and domestic law. We call upon States to provide adequate safeguards, in line with their obligations, to protect the safety and dignity of migrant children and to ensure their access to essential services.

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