On 13-14 October, the Republic of Croatia together with the UNICEF organized the regional conference in Zagreb named „On the move and alone: How to respond effectively to the needs of unaccompanied and separated children in Southeast Europe”.
The aim of the Conference was to build on good practices, improve cross-border cooperation, strengthen national child protection systems and improve the contingency planning across the region. More than 70 participants – civil servants, experts and UNICEF staff from Country Offices in Southeast Europe - have contributed to a fruitful discussion. Deriving from their 2015 experience and bearing in mind the best interests of the child, participants of the Conference were encouraged to share promising practices and lessons learned on unaccompanied and separated children. The Conference was organized as part of the of the #EU4HumanRights initiative.
Today there are approximately 90 000 unaccompanied children in the EU member states. Aside from armed conflicts, children left their countries of origin for different reasons including exploitation and poverty. In the Republic of Croatia there are currently 19 unaccompanied children and the government takes every effort to fulfil their specific needs.
In spite of border closures and tightened migration policies, there are still hundreds of unaccompanied children on their journey to Western Europe. Moving through the Western Balkans or alternative irregular routes, children often resort to smugglers, calling into question their fate. According to Jean Claude Legrand, Senior Regional Advisor on Child Protection in the UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia “All too often, unaccompanied children slip through the cracks in the child protection system – they go unnoticed, unregistered and uncared for. (…) Because the system is failing them, unaccompanied children take matters into their own hands to avoid procedural delays or detention, which exposes them to great dangers.”
Identification, family tracing and reunification, providing adequate accommodation and legal support, as well as guardianship for unaccompanied children have all proven challenging for the governments in Southeast Europe. However, building trust with those unaccompanied or separated children was characterized as a key aspect in dealing with this phenomenon. Thus, guardians and cultural mediators play a key role in building trust and ensuring the best interest of the child in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was found that national legal frameworks should further strengthen their role, responsibilities and accountabilities as well as that their number has to be radically increased. However, it was acknowledged that this needs to go in hand with profound training, certification, and monitoring.
Being afraid to provide accurate information that could undermine their future chances in country of destination, children often refuse registration. In this vein, there is a need to improve our information-sharing skills with the children.
When it comes to durable solution, it is important to stress that two main options have to be considered: local integration and/or resettlement in a third country. However, access to education must be considered at an early stage, meaning before refugee status determination has been finalized.