Where have all their rights gone?
In the mid-1990s the Netherlands was the international example for humane and progressive policies on the treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum (AMAs). So why does a recent report by Human Rights Watch suggest new polices violate UN trea
It is a well known — if uncomfortable — fact that children around the world suffer appalling treatment: torture, slavery, forced into child armies, sold into prostitution, imprisoned, starved, assaulted, abused, witness violence against family members, get caught up in wars and sometimes murdered. It is not surprising that each year tens of thousands of these children look to Western Europe as a place of refuge. Children aged from zero to 18 come to the Netherlands from countries such as China, Sierra Leone, Angola, Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda. According to refugee organisations, children travel as stowaways on boats or trains, are brought from war-torn countries by organisations such as the Red Cross, or can be brought in by smugglers or traffickers who are paid by families or communities to bring the children to a place of safety. In the year 2000, 7,000 of these children made their way to the Netherlands. By spring 2003, that number had been halved as a result of new policies brought in by the IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Department) in January and November of 2001, including the development of the now infamous “Campus Project”. While Dutch authorities appear to consider this fall in numbers a success, refugee organisations including Human Rights Watch (HRW), VON (Association of Refugee Organisations), VluchtelingenWerk (Dutch Refugee Council), NIDOS (organisation responsible for guardianship) and SAMAH (non-governmental support group) consider the price far too high. In a report sent to the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child, HRW investigations found “children's basic rights are frequently ignored or considered inapplicable during the consideration of their asylum and immigration applications”. “It was surprising that the Dutch Government has gone so far out of bounds,” says Julie Chadbourne, spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. “To be fair, maybe they didn’t realise how far-reaching the consequences would be.” Children first The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified in the Netherlands in 1995 and is the most signed UN treaty, accepted by all UN countries except the US and Somalia. The treaty states that all children regardless of sex, race, nationality or religion are entitled to special care and protection and that the best interests of the child must be the overriding consideration in all actions and decisions concerning them. In other words: they are children first and asylum seekers second. According to the HRW report Fleeting Refuge: the Triumph of Efficiency Over Protection in the Dutch Asylum Policy, not only is the current policy failing to comply with UN treaties by focussing primarily on bringing the numbers of asylum seeking children down, in some cases “IND officials seem to have completely neglected the fact that they are dealing with children”. “I had a lawyer on the telephone in tears,” says Chadbourne. “The IND interviewed a two-and-a-half year old from Somalia. His mother is dead, his father is terminally ill and because the child won’t speak he has now been labelled 'unco-operative'. (Which can be a reason to refuse a permit.) We have all been shocked.” Chadbourne points to cases where children as young as four have been interviewed without a lawyer or guardian present. In fact, these children are often not given a lawyer or guardian until after the first interview and information from the first is often used against them in the second. Even in cases where the child