Dragi Zmijanac: No refugee children should be allowed to transit unaccompanied by a parent or guardian
од Наташа Доковска -
28 март, 2016
In 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean, arriving on the shores of Europe, of which it has been estimated that around 253,700 – or one in four – were children. UNICEF states that the issue is getting more critical, because the number of children among refugees and migrants – now more than one child in three adults – continues to grow. According to national sources, in Macedonia, this ratio was 37 percent in December, compared to 23 percent in September, while in Serbia, in December, 36 percent were children compared to 27 percent in September. In the last three months, the number of migrant children has increased continuously. On this topic, we are talking to Professor Dragi Zmijanac, President/CEO & Co-Founder of the First Children’s Embassy in the World- Megjashi.
TEXT.MK: According to UNICEF, more than a third of those who are trying to reach a certain Greek island out of Turkey are children. The report says that for the first time since the migrant crisis in Europe, there were more women and children who crossed the border between Greece and Macedonia than adult men. It is a significant change from June last year, when 73 percent of migrants were men and only 10 percent of them under 18 years old. What is the position of the First Children Embassy in the world – Megjashi regarding this fact?
ZMIJANAC: In August last year, the First Children Embassy in the World – Megjashi sent a public request to the Government for all children refugees from the border zone to be granted an entry into the country. The Government should immediately let in the children who are stopped at the border zone, because Macedonia is a State party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are hundreds of children whose lives are directly jeopardized and under constant threat of unpredictable dangers that lurk in the border belt. The children are in a traumatic condition and need urgent help. We appealed to the Government to allow access to all refugee children! As a State party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Macedonia is responsible for providing any necessary kind of child protection. We also reminded the Government of the responsibilities and obligations which are in accordance with the ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child in the Parliament since 1993. Our commitment, as then and now, is to request that all refugee children are protected and guaranteed the right of international protection, to make sure that they receive safe transport and escort, and to disable all possible ways of child trafficking and exploitation. Republic of Macedonia should represent a safe and secure route for children who are running away from areas affected by war.
Macedonia must be careful and take proper measures to ensure reunification of the families transiting through our territory by not allowing refugee children to transit unaccompanied by an adult. Republic of Macedonia should not allow refugee children to wait at the border Idomeni or deny them entry and transit through our territory. The children who are in the border area are already exhausted, have suffered the trauma of war and have encountered many difficulties and dangers in their journey to the border. We need to show awareness, conscience, solidarity and responsibility in helping refugee children affected by the war. We should constantly take into account the extremely difficult conditions in which children find themselves while waiting, sleeping exposed out on the open, being physically exhausted, exposed to diseases etc. Children are suffering on the migrant route, at the same time different humanitarian and civil society organizations are constantly warning about the desperate situation these children are faced with. If we do not respond to this humanitarian disaster, we will not have any possibility of further exculpation from liability.
What we, as the First Children Embassy in the World mostly appeal to, is the mobility and commitment of the States parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as they must not allow children to be exposed to the risk of being abused or separated from their families.
TEXT.MK: It has been noted in the report from Interpol that more than 10,000 children have disappeared since the beginning of the migrant crisis. Do you have any information about any missing children on the territory of the Republic of Macedonia?
ZMIJANAC: We have no specific figures or insight into the situation in Macedonia, but we think that the situation is worrying. It takes more detailed and more adequate recording of children traveling in each country, where the refugee route passes through. The disappearance of more than 10,000 refugee children traveling unaccompanied by a parent or guardian in European countries is a devastating fact, not only for the weakness and disorganization of the security system and the safety which should be guaranteed to the refugee children passing through the migrant route, but also for the insufficient organization and unwillingness of countries to adequately and entirely assist them. How else can we interpret the fact that there are 1000 missing or abducted refugee children in Sweden alone, 5000 children in Germany and another 5000 in Italy? How many thousands of children are abducted and missing in other countries of the European Union?!
What really astounded us is not only the fact issued by Europol, but also how is it possible for the criminal structures that exist in the Western European countries to be incorporated in the security system? The security system proved to be fragile and compromised, allowing criminals to abduct, kidnap, deal with child trafficking, children’s organs, sex tourism, child prostitution, child pornography, illegal adoption, child abuse and to exploit their labor in giant factories in the textile industry. Smuggling of refugee children is performed well by organized structures that are internationally linked, and this difficult challenge must be faced by countries that mutually work together in order to exchange information and disrupt organized kidnapping, abduction and abuse of refugee children.
States parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child should provide safety and assure refugee children that after landing on European soil they will be guaranteed their safety and security, and that they will be safe and protected not only while in transit, but also on their way to their final destination.
There is no calculation with the fate of children. There should not be questioning on any grounds whether they are migrant children or refugees, whether they are children fleeing from war or economic migrants. Simply put, children are children, and above all, children must be a priority for every country, ensuring their safety and security. The best way to help them is by finding their missing parents and not allowing children to travel unaccompanied.
TEXT.MK: Europe is experiencing its worst crisis in decades, and Macedonia inadvertently “entered” into the center of the crisis. Hundreds of refugee children sit at the border with Greece for days and wait in unbearable conditions to continue the road to the West. Do you have a team that stays daily in the refugee shelters and is in direct contact with the refugee children?
ZMIJANAC: We don’t have a team that is daily on the field, but we have gone out many times and worked for various activities. We try as often as possible to meet the demanding needs of the people. We plan to send a team soon, which will work constantly or at least regularly in the field. Namely, we have signed a Memorandum of cooperation in implementation of activities with the SOS Children’s Village – Macedonia, related to the assistance and support of refugee children from Syria and other areas affected by the war, found on the territory of Macedonia. We are trying to help create conditions for a timely and efficient implementation of outreach activities for help and support of refugee children from Syria and other areas affected by military conflict. Apart from the recent activities in the transit center “Tabanovce”, there is an ongoing preparation for providing psycho social support for the children in this transit center, where the staff from Megjashi will respect the protocol and principles of working in a children friendly area. For direct assistance to the refugee children, Megjashi plans to purchase 25 humanitarian packages (shoes, clothing) intended for unaccompanied refugee children from Syria. We know that this is too little for their current needs, but every help is welcome.
TEXT.MK: If you have contact with the refugee children, what are their urgent needs, if not, why aren’t you present in the field?
ZMIJANAC: Needs in the field are changing according to different influences, at first the problems were related to security and lack of basic supplies like food and water, now the problems are associated with impassibility of the refugee route, the conditions in which the refugees are waiting, and weather conditions. At the same time we try not to forget that children are children and have a need to play, so we are working in that direction as much as we can. Back in April last year we demanded that refugee children are treated in a manner that will ensure their best interests. We forewarned that all actions related to the refugee children taken by Republic of Macedonia must represent the child’s best interests.
Macedonia must guarantee that best interests of refugee children will be respected and that they will be provided with special protection and care. We have referred to Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and required from the State to take care of the needs of refugee children, and to provide adequate psycho therapeutic care for children who have suffered from emotional or physical trauma in particular. A key role of the State as then and now is to ensure an effective transiting system for migrants in Macedonia, especially refugee children, to secure their movement and transit through the territory of the Republic of Macedonia. In that period of time, we vigilantly observed the situation with the transit, but the transit centers in Gevgelija and Tabanovce were not opened yet at that time. On the International Day of Refugees we reminded the public that millions of children flee to other countries as victims of war. Almost never in history have been children so exposed to such brutality as it has been done in the recent years, especially when it comes to refugee children! They are the most vulnerable population in most emergency situations, facing threats of violence, exploitation, disease, abduction, neglect.
The situation got really dramatic when thousands of refugees including many minors, transited daily. We alarmed the Macedonian Government to begin with immediate implementation of the new Law on Asylum, so as not to repeat the plight that refugee children, their parents and guardians went through in the past days and months.
In August last year, Megjashi appealed to the Government of Macedonia to allow access to refugee children in Macedonia and demanded refugee children to be accompanied by adults, or to be accepted into a camp until the children are reunited with the family.
On January 6th this year, activists from Megjashi handed 45 New Year’s packages for the refugee children to the volunteers of Open Gate in the refugee camp in Gevgelija. Part of these packages was prepared by the students from the secondary school “Arsenij Jovkov” in Skopje. In February this year, we sent a request to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, with a very concrete requirement – help and support for refugee children in terms of psycho social activities that we want to implement in the transit center Tabanovce. They redirected us to La Strada, UNICEF and SOS Children’s Village, for further alignment of the needs and implementation of these activities. In coordination with the SOS Children’s Village we signed a Memorandum of cooperation and submitted our program proposal to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy regarding the activities we want to accomplish.
TEXT.MK: What kind of communication have you established with the Government concerning the issue of the refugee crisis?
ZMIJANAC: In the beginning of the refugee crisis, Megjashi demanded that all refugee children in the border zone are granted an entry into the country. The Government should immediately let in the children who are stopped at the border zone, because Macedonia is a State party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is unacceptable for refugee children to be protesting against the closed border by lying down on the rails in Idomeni. Macedonia must open its borders for the refugee children. However, the European Union and other international organizations for assistance and support to migrant children should take over their part of the obligations more actively, in a solidarity and humane fashion. Generally, all countries in Europe failed in dealing with the refugee crisis. With entering into Greece as a first, they have already entered the EU; therefore all efforts that are put into assisting Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, are directly related to dealing with the refugee crisis and security at the entrance to European soil. By closing the borders, we are closing the option of helping these victimized children affected by war. Europe has failed the test of humanity, solidarity and help in the hardest moments. These actions, such as closing the borders are just enhancing the ordeal of these victims, with mostly refugee children being affected by them. Although European countries are signatories (States parties) to many conventions and ratified documents pertaining to the protection of refugee children and respect of fundamental children’s rights, yet they failed to consistently honor them.
TEXT.MK: Manipulation of children who are unaccompanied by parents or family member has always been present, trafficking and prostitution as well, so how to prevent this?
ZMIJANAC: These organized criminal structures that operate in routes where refugees transit on European soil are closely tied to criminal structures in Syria and Iraq, where refugees move from. They receive information and exploit the weaknesses of the countries through the route where the victims transit, fleeing the hell of war. The international community must get mobilized and approach this problem seriously in order to avoid abuse of refugee children … Transit of children unaccompanied by a parent or guardian must not be allowed.
The Governments have an obligation and responsibility to respect international documents ratified in their parliaments. Namely, we want to remind the public of the United Nations Convention for combating women’s and children’s trafficking adopted by the League of Nations in 1921, Convention against Transnational Organized Crime adopted by the UN in 2000 for wider and better cooperation in prevention and combat of organized crime. This particular one has been complemented by the Protocol for prevention, abolishment and punishment of people trafficking, especially women and children (which is the first instrument that addresses all aspects of trafficking, universally, that came into force in December 2013). We would like to remind the States parties of the Protocol against migrant smuggling by land, sea and air (which entered into force in January 2004). Macedonia signed it in 2000 and ratified it in 2004.
Obligations arising from other international documents are:
Convention on the prohibition of human trafficking and exploitation of others for prostitution
• European Convention on child adoption;
• Hague Convention on jurisdiction, applicable law and recognition of decrees related to adoptions;
• Convention no. 138 of the International Labor Organization for minimum age for employment;
• European Social Covenant, with particular reference to Article 7, concerning the right to protection of children and adolescents.
TEXT.MK: Where do you see the exit of the refugee crisis, as we hear more often that we will have half a million refugees this spring?
ZMIJANAC: In raising public awareness of the importance of each country to get mobilized and respond appropriately to this great humanitarian and solidarity challenge. The importance of providing helping, primarily to refugee children, is crucial for the response and solution to this refugee crisis. The number of refugee children who travel to the borders of the European Union grows larger by day and they are all together facing a test. The countries will respond to this challenge adequately or worsen the condition. For the purpose of raising and mobilizing the public opinion on the importance of respect for one of the most significant humanitarian and human principles – to lend a helping hand when someone needs it the most, Megjashi created a publication in cooperation with the Forum for Freedom of Education from Croatia named “We are all children of this world: how to discuss the refugee crisis with students.”
Another activity of the First Children’s Embassy – Megjashi, besides being directly involved in helping refugees, is the ethical and peace education program.
Also, a group of civil society organizations in the region, such as the Roma Center for Democracy from Serbia, Partnere per Femijet from Albania, First Children Embassy in the World – Megjashi from Macedonia and Vive ZENE from Bosnia and Herzegovina together with our partners Center for Peace and Tolerance from Kosovo and IMPAKT from Macedonia designed a joint campaign “WINK for HELP” that represents an internationally recognized body language, as a sign for help when someone is in trouble. “WINK for HELP” will be silent SOS signal to alert authorities when a person is in trouble. The purpose of this campaign is to prevent human trafficking, especially with those who have transited through Europe. Winking FOR HELP will create a universal SOS sign to help prevent human trafficking, abduction, kidnapping and abuse.
In the upcoming period, once a week in the next three months, two psychologists from the First Children’s Embassy – Megjashi will be visiting the refugee shelter in Tabanovce, where they will work with refugee children, focusing on their psychological and post-traumatic empowerment, so that they can withstand in their efforts to come out stronger from the fight against the exodus they are facing.
TEXT.MK: Do you believe that the new plan for closure of the “Balkan route” will contribute to decreasing refugee counts and thereby to reduction of violation of children’s rights?
ZMIJANAC: The closure of the European borders, which was undertaken by European countries because of concerns caused by the refugee crisis, will cause additional chaos and confusion, and thus increase the risk of violation of children’s rights and abuse of refugee children.