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(Madrid) – Hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children from Africa held in government facilities in the Canary Islands are at risk of violence and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

In the past year, more than 900 unaccompanied migrant children have arrived in the Canary Islands after dangerous and often traumatic journeys in makeshift boats. In response to this unprecedented number of migrant children arriving on its shores, the Canary Islands regional authorities one year ago opened four emergency centers to house 400-500 migrant children, who are mainly boys from Senegal and Morocco.

The 115-page report, “Unwelcome Responsibilities: Spain’s Failure to Protect the Rights of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the Canary Islands,” documents how children stay in these centers for indefinite periods, in often overcrowded and poor conditions. The children told Human Rights Watch that they have been subjected to beatings by staff, and left unprotected from violence by their peers. They do not enjoy access to public education, they have limited opportunity for recreation and leisure, and they are unduly restricted in their freedom of movement.

“These children should be protected by the Spanish authorities, not left to suffer beatings and abuse,” said Simone Troller, Europe children’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The Canary Islands government should close these centers and arrange better care for the children.”

The Canary Islands regional authorities and the Spanish government to date have no solution for children who remain in these centers. The transfer of 500 children to better care on the Spanish mainland, under an agreement negotiated by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, had only limited impact in easing the pressure on the Canary Islands child protection services. Furthermore, the implementation of the agreement was discriminatory against Moroccan children, who were not chosen for transfers.

Regardless of whether these children have the right to remain in the country, while they are on Spanish territory they are entitled to the full provisions spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Spain ratified in 1990. The government must identify a durable solution as soon as possible after their arrival, and children must be enabled to apply for asylum. The government may proceed with family reunification only after a careful assessment of whether such a decision is in the child’s best interest and without risk to his or her well-being. If the return of a child is not possible on either legal or factual grounds, the Spanish government must provide these children with real opportunities for local integration and with a secure legal status.

“I am not happy here; if I could I would leave this center. We don't receive any good food,” said a 17-year-old Senegalese boy at La Esperanza emergency center in Tenerife. “When we tell them that we are hungry they tell us that we were starving in Senegal and should be happy to be given food at all.”

Children told Human Rights Watch about numerous instances of ill-treatment and lack of protection from violence. Another 17-year-old boy at La Esperanza told us that “one boy got into trouble with [a staff member]. That day the [staff member] took him to the shower and beat him up. There was blood in the boy’s mouth and his clothes were full of blood – his shirt could not be used anymore.” A 13-year-old boy at Arinaga emergency center said that “the [staff members] consciously look away when [other children] are beating up another child.”

Human Rights Watch called upon the Canary Islands government and the Spanish government to immediately devise and implement a plan to close emergency centers and transfer children to alternative care arrangements, either in the Canary Islands or mainland Spain. These arrangements must be conducive to the children’s well-being and development, and the fulfillment of their rights under national and international law must be guaranteed.

The authorities need to investigate reports of abuses and ill-treatment of children and hold all perpetrators fully accountable. They also must provide children with full information on their rights in a language they understand, with particular emphasis on their rights to documentation, legal residence, work permits, education and health.

“Unaccompanied migrant children continue to arrive on the shores of the Canary Islands,” said Troller. “Spanish authorities should immediately implement a lasting solution that fully respects the rights of these children.”

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