As we mark the UN’s Universal Children’s Day this year, how are children in Europe faring in some of the key areas covered in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and what is the European Union doing to protect their rights and ensure their wellbeing? How do children themselves see their lives and what would they like their governments to do for them?
In 1954, the United Nations recommended that all countries establish a national day to promote children’s rights and welfare, and set 20 November as Universal Children’s Day. It was on this date that the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), in 1989. The CRC, which has been ratified by all the European Union (EU) Member States, requires governments to realise every child’s rights to adequate living conditions, health and education, as well as their rights to family life, to be protected from violence, not to be discriminated against, and to have their views heard. The EU itself is not a party to the Convention, but the CRC plays an important role in guiding the development of its law on children’s rights. Article 24 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (based on Articles 3, 9, 12 and 13 of the CRC), recognises that children are independent holders of rights with their own needs and interests, whilst Article 3 TEU makes protecting the rights of the child one of the goals the Union must pursue in internal and external policy. The EU has a policy framework on children’s rights and child protection and an overall strategy for work in this area. The EU and its Member States must also ensure that their work towards the new UN Sustainable Development Goals aligns with the CRC.
Overall measures of child wellbeing in Europe
The CRC commits governments to providing every child with an adequate standard of living to ensure physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, including support to those in need (Article 27), access to education (Article 28), and health (Article 24).
Social and economic disadvantages in early life have repercussions into adulthood and even across generations, making child wellbeing vital for individuals and society as a whole. Unicef’s 2016 State of the World’s Children Report illustrates that both developing and developed countries need to do more to reach children and families at risk of poverty and exclusion. In the EU, one in four children are affected (25 million) according to Eurostat figures. Whilst children’s risk of poverty or social exclusion varies between countries, being highest in Romania (46.8 %) and Bulgaria (43.7 %), and lowest in Sweden (14.0 %) and Finland (14.9 %), the rate rose from 2010 to 2015 in approximately half of the EU Member States. The highest increases were in Greece (up from 28.7 % in 2010 to 37.8 % in 2015), Cyprus (+7.1 pp), and Italy (+4.0 pp). Unicef finds that the economic crisis has had a lasting impact on child wellbeing in Europe and that the poorest and most vulnerable children have suffered disproportionately. Its league tables, with indicators on poverty, education and health, show how far countries have allowed their most disadvantaged children to fall behind the ‘average’ child. In ‘How’s life for children?’ the OECD measures 10 dimensions of well-being, highlighting divergences between boys and girls, and children of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Children with disabilities and migrant children also face problems accessing health services, uneven opportunities for education and higher rates of poverty, and those in the older age range are disproportionately likely not to be in training or employment.
Protecting the rights of children in conflicts and on the move
The CRC commits governments to protect and care for children who are affected by armed conflict (Article 38) and aid their recovery (Article 39). Child refugees have the right to special protection and help (Article 22).
An estimated 250 million children across the world live in areas affected by conflict, and the UN reports that related children’s rights violations are on the rise. According to Unicef’s 2016 study on child migrants and refugees around the world, 28 million children have been forcibly displaced, with a further 20 million child migrants. Children now make up half the world’s refugees. In Europe, around 30 % of asylum-seekers in 2015 and the first half of 2016 were children, nearly 70 % fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. An alarming number are travelling alone. It is reported that almost 90 000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in EU countries in 2015. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) finds that their situation raises concerns and should be a priority for national governments. Unicef stresses that urgent action is needed to protect children at all stages of their journey, including when they reach their destination, where they may face obstacles to integrating and starting new lives. It also highlights that failure to identify children at risk and provide safe transit and reception facilities that meet child protection standards and legal and practical access to asylum make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Europol figures show that at least 10 000 refugee children have gone missing after arriving in Europe, with many feared to be exploited and abused for sexual or labour purposes. Children are also particularly vulnerable to both physical and psychological violence while in migration detention, making it a threat to their wellbeing.
Protecting children from violence, abuse and exploitation
The CRC commits governments to protect children from all forms of violence and abuse (Article 19) and sexual exploitation (Article 34).
Unicef has documented widespread violence against children around the world. It may take numerous forms (physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect) and happen in various contexts, including at home, at school and within institutions. Analysis of violence towards children in the EU finds that the extent is difficult to assess, but existing estimates give cause for concern. Besides child migrants, vulnerable children include children with disabilities and girls at risk of FGM. There are also new challenges in the digital environment, which can be a risky space for children. Online child sexual abuse is on the rise, according to Europol.
Recent EU action
On children’s wellbeing. FRA is analysing national data related to the Commission’s 2013 strategy ‘Investing in children: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage’, which aims to help prevent and tackle child poverty and social exclusion and promote children’s wellbeing. To identify the best policies and approaches to effectively promote the well-being of children and young people, EU-funded research has reviewed policy in each Member State and explored the feasibility of a longitudinal study to fill the gap in comparable data. NGOs, including Eurochild and the EU Alliance for Investing in Children are also calling on the European Commission to ensure that children’s rights are mainstreamed throughout the proposed European Pillar on Social Rights, which has the potential to help eradicate child poverty and promote children’s well-being. The public consultation on the pillar is open until 31 December 2016.
On conflict and migration. The EU has Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict. It is supporting education in emergencies and working with Unicef to protect child refugees and migrants. The 10th European Forum on the rights of the child on 29-30 November 2016 will focus on their protection, whilst FRA is conducting research on migration-related detention of children in the EU.
On EU action to protect children from violence. The EU has adopted legislation to eradicate various forms of violence to which children are subjected, including human trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation. Member States have primary responsibility for child-protection systems, but the EU also supports national action. Recent initiatives include a mapping of the national systems and a Better internet for children strategy. The EU is also taking steps to ensure that children are heard.
The European Parliament does not have a specific committee on children’s rights, but has a cross-party Child Rights Intergroup. Many MEPs have pledged to become child rights champions through signing a Child rights manifesto. Parliament regularly speaks out on the issue, and has called for action on child poverty and online child sexual abuse and an end to migration detention for children. Parliament has also stressed the need to protect all child migrants and refugees, and specifically unaccompanied minors and girls. on issues that affect them.
Listening to children’s voices and views
Under the CRC (Article 12), children have the right to express their views and be heard on issues that concern them.
The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child has found that this article has been one of the most challenging to implement, due to widespread concerns about children’s competence to be involved in decisions and a lack of knowledge about how to ensure their participation. The EU has been taking steps in this area, including a study to map legislation, policy and practice on child participation in all its Member States.
Children’s Worlds, the first worldwide survey to measure children’s own perceptions of their wellbeing, has findings for seven EU countries (DE, ES, ET, MT, PO, RO, UK), and will later have results for a further three (FI, IT, PT).
The Council of Europe’s ‘Austerity Bites: Children’s Voices’ project allowed thirty-six children and young people across eight different municipalities and regions of Europe (Rome, the Hague, Ghent, Athens, Brussels, Glasgow, Preston, Marseille) to give their views by creating their own short films and animations on the impact of austerity measures.
The Exile Voices project has allowed Syrian refugee children aged 10 to 15 to document their daily lives.
In a worldwide consultation of children for the UN, protection from violence was one of their highest priorities.
In 2014, 2 693 children aged between 4 and 19 from 71 different countries were consulted on how governments should spend public money on children, producing key messages on why and where they should invest and how children could be involved in decisions.
Ahead of Universal Children’s Day, the European Parliament hosted a symposium with children to discuss how children’s voices can be heard on issues that affect them.
Where to get more information:
On events around Universal Children’s Day…
On measuring children’s wellbeing…
On child migrants and refugees…
On violence against children
On Children’s right to be heard
“Please protect our right to speak up and decide things about matters that affect us. It is our life and our choices. No matter what a decision affecting us is, it is our decision that counts. People can’t choose our life for us no matter how old, because we are humans and we have rights.” Francesca, 13 (Source: Unicef)
This at a glance publication is available on the EPRS Think Tank