"No matter their status, children must be treated as children first and their best interests professionally identified and respected," Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erica Feller said Wednesday in her keynote address to delegates at the conference on the protection of unaccompanied and separated children.
The three-day conference, organized by the US State Department's Bureau for Population Refugees and Migration and hosted by George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, is aimed at improving the timeliness and effectiveness of protection for the more than 1.6 million children who - either as refugees, internally displaced persons or migrants - have become separated from their parents or guardians.
Many unaccompanied children have survived arduous and dangerous journeys to escape persecution, human rights violations and violence. An estimated 1.2 million children are the victims of exploitation by human traffickers, while an unknown number have been sent by care givers, willingly or otherwise, to countries that offer the promise of a better future.
The procedures in place to respond to separated or unaccompanied children vary wildly from country to country, said Feller. She cited the example of a European country that within the past week had implemented fast-track airport procedures aimed at blocking children's arrival. The lack of government appointed counsel or guardians for unaccompanied children was noted as a perennial problem around the globe, including in the United States.
"The absence of representation to enable a child to navigate the legal hurdles of entry and proper assessment of protection needs is fundamentally detrimental to children's best interests," said Feller.
An initiative spearheaded by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft to increase legal representation for unaccompanied children, which was launched in the United States last week, as well as government efforts, were described by the Assistant High Commissioner as extremely positive developments.
Feller said the protection of unaccompanied and separated children, particularly child asylum seekers and refugees, should be guided by one overarching principle - that policies and actions should be determined by what is in the best interests of the child.
"In the view of UNHCR and our [governing] Executive Committee," said Feller, "this principle should be a primary consideration in all actions concerning unaccompanied or separated children, from their identification, reception and referral to finding the appropriate temporary care arrangements and their participation in asylum processes."
Current asylum and migration procedures are designed primarily for the needs of adults, said Feller in her concluding remarks, while what is needed are practices aimed directly at children.
By Tim Irwin
in Fairfax, United States