The worst place to return a child?

June 9, 2010

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-Simone Troller is children’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch and specialises in unaccompanied migrant children in Europe. The opinions expressed are her own.-

It should hardly come as a surprise to anyone reading the news that Europe’s biggest group of asylum seekers are Afghans, including thousands of children who arrive alone.

But what should surprise readers is that a growing number of European countries, including the UK, plan to deport these vulnerable children. The British government claims that returning them will prevent others from making the hazardous journey. It wants to set up a reception centre for them in Kabul.

But this approach raises serious concerns.

Child rights organizations actively discourage institutionalizing children and most European countries, including the UK, have moved away from this form of child protection.

And the claim that returning children will lead to fewer arrivals is based on an assumption that these children had a choice about leaving.

Interviewing these children leads me to think many of them didn’t.

Afghanistan has had conflict for most of the past 30 years, and many Afghan children who come to Europe were born or have lived most of their lives in Iran or Pakistan.

Even those from Afghanistan told me about threats of exploitation and violence that caused them to flee. Understanding each child’s story, with the help of appropriate guardians and lawyers, is the first, and essential step in finding a long-term solution for the child.

Returning children quickly instead to a reception center may simply make them undertake the hazardous journey back to Europe again.

The UK and other European governments should protect children who are here, and make long-term commitments to help Afghanistan address the needs of all its children.

Then, hopefully, Unicef will no longer have to name Afghanistan the worst place for a child to be born.

Picture shows a British soldier from A Company, 2 Mercian, as he patrols past Afghan boys in the Babaji village in Helmand province on July 23, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

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