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When Human Rights Watch first saw Yemi, the 17-year-old boy was huddled on a concrete bench in the corner of a windowless, graffitied holding cell run by the French border police. Clad in a stiff new leather jacket but otherwise without clothing warm enough to face Paris in January, Yemi had been in the cell for nine hours. Yemi’s testimony, whispered in English beneath the din of the other detainees, revealed his fears. He had no idea why he was locked up, no grasp of the paperwork the French had asked him to sign, and no understanding of when or how he would be able to challenge his detention.

Yemi’s despair and fear in detention is not unusual. Yemi, from Nigeria, is one of at least 12,000 migrant children who arrive in the European Union irregularly each year without a parent or other guardian. Tens of thousands more enter with a parent or another family member. Children like Yemi – whether travelling alone or with family – are all too often detained, denied their rights, and left without the care to which they are entitled.

Other EU countries have equally troubling policies. The countries of the EU are, in many respects, leaders on children’s rights around the globe. Yet Europe is failing to meet migrant children’s needs. Fortunately, the EU can resolve these issues. On 26-27 June, the leaders of Europe will come together in Brussels to adopt priorities for migration and asylum policies for the coming years.

International law says children should never be detained because of their or their parent’s migration status, yet a number of European Union countries lock up these exceptionally vulnerable migrants. 

France detains as many as 500 children a year who arrive alone at the borders and airports. While French authorities are told not to detain migrant children once they are on French territory, under French law children who arrive alone or with families at an airport or seaport can be held in one of more than 50 transit zones for up to 20 days.

Bulgaria comingles unaccompanied children with unrelated adults in migrant detention centers and doesn’t provide the legal guardians international law requires. In 2013, Bulgaria also detained hundreds of Syrian and other asylum seekers, including children, in the closed Harmanli camp, which has since been changed into an open camp.

Over the last two years, Greece has been carrying out large-scale immigration sweeps resulting in mass apprehensions and systematic and prolonged detention, including children and families, in squalid, overcrowded conditions. Detaining children with their parents remains a common practice in a number of EU member states. In other situations, parents are detained and children are separated from their parents and placed in care.

Even those who are not detained face violations of their basic rights, particularly if they are undocumented: in far too many countries, they cannot access services or justice and do not have adequate guardianship. Undocumented children are even prevented from getting essential health services in many European countries until their condition is considered an emergency. Even victims of violence may face detention and deportation, rather than the protection they need.

Europe has taken some positive steps in recent years— some countries now prohibit detention of children, or guarantee children equal access to health care.  But our organizations and 36 others,  including the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, are calling on the European Union to use this opportunity to make their previous commitments to protect the rights of every child a reality. These priorities can establish a framework for concrete actions to improve protection of migrant children’s rights in Europe. Children’s best interests need to be put first regardless of their or their parent’s migration or residence status.

Europe’s political leaders need to take concrete measures to ensure equal access to services, protection and justice for all children. This includes separating the provision of services, including complaint and redress mechanisms, from immigration enforcement. As a priority, all children should be entitled to access health care on equal terms. European states should stop detaining children, and allow children and families to live in the community while their immigration status is being resolved. 

It shouldn’t be possible to walk into a detention facility in Europe and see a boy huddled in the corner in fear, held solely because of his migration status. It shouldn’t be possible in Europe for a child’s physical and mental health, development and well-being, in the short and long term, to be damaged, simply because his or his parents had difficulties meeting the administrative requirements of immigration authorities. Now is the time for Europe’s leaders to take action for migrant children.

Lilana Keith is a programme officer at PICUM, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants. Alice Farmer is a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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