International Migrants Day: Finding Solutions for Migrant Children

December 18, 2012
Sri Lankan Migrant Children Have Lunch

On the occasion of International Migrants Day, I wanted to share my experience from the sixth Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in Port Louis, Mauritius. I led the U.S. delegation of representatives from the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Labor, and the United States Agency for International Development, where we met with other nations under the theme of "Enhancing the Human Development of Migrants and their Contribution to the Development of Communities and States."

The Forum was first established after the United Nations 2006 High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development as a voluntary, non-binding, government-led forum open to all UN members. Nearly 150 countries gather annually at the GFMD to constructively discuss migration and development-related topics outside of the political arena. While it might not sound inherently useful, governments use the forum to speak candidly about challenges, to learn from one another and build relationships with non-traditional allies.

Along with governments, the GFMD integrates nearly 200 international civil society organizations to participate in "Civil Society Days." In a dedicated session for civil society and government interaction, I facilitated a session on addressing the complex needs of unaccompanied migrant minors in border management.

In preparation for this session, I visited a shelter in Virginia which houses children who came to the United States without family. Hearing the stories of their perilous journeys spoke to the risks they were willing to take in pursuit of their dreams and often to escape violence in their home communities. Apprehended at the border, they had been transferred to special shelters, like the one I visited, within 72 hours in accordance with U.S. law, and would soon be released to family or other appropriate community care while their claims for immigration relief are considered. During the average 54-day stay at the shelter they receive health care, counseling, and attend classes. Their teachers told me they are so keen to learn they are always asking for extra homework.

While the sessions at GFMD are strictly off-the-record, I can report back that there was universal acceptance that protecting the lives and human rights of migrant children is an obligation of all States. It is crucial to protect children during proceedings and inform them of their rights in a way that they will understand, as well as provide adequate training for those who interact with them, whether border guards, police, or social workers.

While there is concern among policymakers that establishing a blanket welcome to children migrating without family would inadvertently create a pull factor leading to kids attempting dangerous journeys alone to other countries, the challenge lies in finding solutions that take the child's best interests into account within broader migration policy. While countries have the sovereign right and responsibility to decide whom to admit or exclude from their country, migration policy should include protection measures, and adhere to international humanitarian guidelines and conventions.

Events like the GFMD play an important role in providing an informal space to discuss challenges and best practices that can help shape humane discourse and policy on migration and development. We know from U.S. experiences that without the many contributions of migrants to our society and economy, our country would not be the great nation it is today. And we can always continue to learn from other countries about better ways and approaches for addressing migration and development challenges.

Related Content: Statement by Spokesperson Victoria Nuland on International Migrants Day, 2012

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