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(Brussels) - Spain's accelerating effort to send back unaccompanied children who enter the country illegally might subject them to danger, ill-treatment and detention, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government needs to halt repatriations until it has a process to ensure their well-being, and, as an immediate step, give them the same right to an independent lawyer that adult migrants have under Spanish law.

The 22-page report, "Returns at Any Cost: Spain's Push to Repatriate Unaccompanied Children in the Absence of Safeguards," says that in Andalusia, the southern region that is a common entry point for migrants, authorities have said they intend to send up to 1,000 unaccompanied children in their custody to Morocco, claiming that safeguards are in place. But officials could not explain how they determined it was in a child's best interest to return, as required by law. They also said that the Moroccan government's agreement to take a child back was in itself a sufficient guarantee of the child's well-being after return.

"Spain is taking a chance with these children's safety," said Simone Troller, children's rights researcher in Europe for Human Rights Watch. "Why deny these especially vulnerable children more safeguards, including the same right to an independent lawyer that adult migrants have?"

On October 20, 2008, Spain is scheduled to appear before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which will review the government's implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In its official report to the committee, however, the Spanish government does not address its efforts to repatriate children who enter the country without parents or caregivers, though research by Human Rights Watch and other organizations has shown that it routinely violated their rights under the ICCPR when returning them.

In repatriation decisions, government officials fail to analyze or even collect information about what could happen to these children in their home countries, Human Rights Watch researchers found. In many cases children are not allowed to be heard as officials consider whether to send them back. Spanish courts have stopped at least two dozen repatriations in the past two years because the process violated the country's own laws.

Although Spain provides adults facing deportation with lawyers, it denies legal assistance to children. Instead, they are represented by the same body that often proposes to deport them. The government has tried to block pro bono lawyers who have taken up a minority of children's cases on appeal.

"More than any other migrants, children who come to Spain alone need lawyers to protect their interests," Troller said. "Spain should provide children with legal aid, just like it does adults."

Most of the children who arrive unaccompanied come from Morocco. Spain's strategy to speed up the return of unaccompanied children to Morocco and Senegal, another country from which hundreds of unaccompanied children arrived to the Canary Islands, has led it to conclude bilateral readmission agreements followed by high-level meetings with both countries. It has also financed the construction of residential reception facilities for children in Morocco.

But Human Rights Watch and other international and Spanish nongovernmental organizations have repeatedly documented Spanish and Moroccan abuses of unaccompanied children during and following returns to Morocco. Instead of being reunited with their families, Moroccan security officials turned children out onto the streets and left them to fend for themselves.

"Spain must investigate what children will face upon return before deciding whether to send the child back," Troller said.

Human Rights Watch urged Spain to:

  • Provide all unaccompanied children with competent independent legal assistance throughout repatriation proceedings;
  • Adopt regulations that clearly state the government's obligation to carry out an individualized best interest determination and a risk assessment before deciding to repatriate a child, as well as specific procedures to be followed and standards to be met; and,
  • Put in place procedures for regular public reporting about how the readmission agreements for unaccompanied children with Morocco and Senegal are being carried out, and allow for independent monitoring of these agreements.

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