Statement by Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Special Coordinator, Refugee and Migrant crisis in Europe
“The year, 2015, will be remembered for the heartbreaking image of a lifeless little boy on a beach – one of many who came before him; one of many who came after him. It was a year that saw hundreds of thousands of children and their families on the move leaving behind conflict violence and persecution, on an odyssey of hope through Europe. It was the year of mass displacement. And the end is not yet in sight.
To make 2016 a better year for children, we must focus on their rights and needs. They are not responsible for this crisis, yet they are paying the highest price.
Last year, 2014, was a devastating year for children. Around the world – from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond, millions of children were victims of terrible brutality and forced recruitment; deprived of learning and exposed to unspeakable loss. Many were killed. Many more were robbed of their childhood.
It was only a question of time until this crisis played out on the seas, on the borders, and in the backyards of Europe. 2014 was the year when the seeds were sown for hundreds of thousands of children to be uprooted and on the move.
In 2015, nearly a million people, a third of whom are children, have made the treacherous journey to Europe. Some 500 children have lost their lives at sea. Countless more have lost loved ones, left their homes and communities. They have suffered terrifying boat-crossings and unpredictable border closures.
The scale and speed of this crisis is an unprecedented challenge for Europe. The impact on children is also unprecedented. This is a children’s crisis. Our response must be child focused.
With winter settling in, babies need to be kept warm. Toddlers who have escaped bombings need to feel safe. Young girls who are at risk of sexual violence need protection. Children with disabilities need special attention, assistive devices and access to medical services. Boys taking care of their families need to be supported. Children who have been deprived of school for years need to resume learning.
Protecting refugee and migrant children is a shared responsibility. And UNICEF is ready to do its share. We are extending protection to children and their families all along their journey. In countries of origin, in countries where children are on the move and in countries of destination.
From our joint assessment with Governments, we know that children and women in temporary accommodation centers are at risk of falling between the cracks of the protection systems, potentially facing harm and neglect. We will work to strengthen the protection of children in reception and accommodation centres; support learning and play opportunities in Child Friendly Spaces to help children heal; and share technical know-how when it comes to monitoring children’s rights and strengthening data systems — because supporting children effectively depends on having real-time, accurate data.
This crisis is an opportunity for Europe to uphold its commitments to the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its Protocol; to respect basic human dignity and the principle of ‘non refoulement’; to uphold the foundation values of the European Union and the core principles of its Human Rights legislation. For it is in times of crisis that values are most tested.
This crisis reminds UNICEF of its roots. UNICEF started its own journey in Europe in 1946 providing for emergency food and healthcare to children in countries devastated by the war. Nearly 70 years later, we have evolved as part of the United Nations, into an organization operating in 190 countries. During that time, Europe became one of our main partners, providing support to children affected by conflict and poverty around the world, now, scaling up its support to these very same children, this time, on European soil.
For now, children have reached safety. Next, we must protect them and help them go to school; keep them healthy, help them recover from their trauma, counsel them and give them the chance to play.
So, let us all continue to be by their side in the New Year. Let us give them the future for which they risked their lives.
Multimedia assets for the refugee and migrant crisis can be downloaded here