The lawyer Pablo Ceriani (Buenos Aires, 1973), doctor in Human Rights from the University of Valencia and Master in International Migration from the European of Madrid, is an elected member of the UN Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and your families. During his previous term, he coordinated a working group at the United Nations to develop the United Nations Joint General Observations on the rights of the child. Its guidelines were violated in the operation that returned 55 Moroccan minors from Ceuta in mid-August. His expulsion was, he says, a “regrettable step backwards” for the image of our country.
The repatriation of minors: the “anecdotal” legal figure that is intended to be used in Ceuta without means or to initiate the files
Author of UNICEF reports on The rights of unaccompanied migrant children in the southern border Spanish (2019) and Childhood on the move on the Canarian route (2021), Ceriani warns that the systematic circumvention of procedures that ensure the best interests of each minor “generates a circular network of violence, dangers and irregularities that also does not stop migration.” In his opinion, changes are still necessary in the Spanish child protection system, which “does not work with people in mobility contexts”, and a state mechanism of “joint responsibility” to deal with “massive” arrivals of unaccompanied minors such as the occurred in the autonomous city.
How have you seen the Spain attempt to repatriate hundreds of single Moroccan migrant children from Ceuta outside of the Immigration and Child Protection legislation?
With great concern. Those of us who from different places observe everything that has to do with migrant children in different latitudes tended to include Spain in the catalog of good practices. Not in all aspects, but in leaving the response to the arrival of unaccompanied children in charge of the Child Protection System. The rules and principles of International Law, developed above all by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, require that the leadership and monitoring of each case correspond to the Spanish authority, which had been a good example with nuances.
There were problems related to the procedure for determining the age and the foster care formulas due to the lack of residence permits or a system of joint responsibility throughout the Spanish territory, but the protection of children prevailed over the migratory perspective. The case of Ceuta has been a regrettable step backwards because the decisions were not adopted guided by respect for the rights of each child, but by other reasons of collaboration between two States.
The authorities have appealed to the need for an exceptional response to an extraordinary situation such as the one generated in May in Ceuta, a city whose limitations it knows.
In 2018 I worked with a UNICEF Spain team in Ceuta, Melilla and Andalusia on the arrival of thousands of children to those three territories. Already then we warned of a series of serious problems, deficiencies, in terms of care, coordination between the autonomies and the State, preparation for contingencies with adequate protection resources … Children were left in the protection system and Certain things had to be fixed: co-responsibility, transition to the age of majority, residence permits, adequate reception resources, more interpreters and cultural mediators… It was about substantially improving policies, but there were no practices of return for migration purposes. This is why these expulsions have been so worrying.
The exceptionality is not a valid argument at all. The human, technical and infrastructure resources that exist in Ceuta and the rest of Spain should have been strengthened to attend to the children who arrived, not to ignore our legal obligations to remove the challenge from us. The opposite is as if, now that thousands of Afghans are leaving, we are saying that we are going to annul our legal framework for those fleeing such serious situations, close the borders and return them immediately.
In his report for UNICEF three years ago on the southern Spanish border, he already called for specific plans for “the arrival of a significant number of migrant children.”
Yes. And it is reiterated in the latest report on what happened in the Canary Islands, where luckily they have not been returned to Morocco or other countries with numbers that triple those of Ceuta. The weight cannot be limited to a community or autonomous city. The scheme is transferred to a European scale: just as the countries of the southern or eastern borders claim a community policy, in Spain the reality is not only Ceuta, Melilla, Andalusia, Murcia or the Canary Islands, but national or European. There is a need for a framework prepared for contingencies of this type that do not put the burden on a region.
The classic child protection system, designed for helpless children who have suffered abuse or violence and can be referred within their own community to reception resources or specialized care, does not work for people in a context of mobility. It requires coordination of all the actors for phenomena with other characteristics. What can never happen is that, while that happens, the legal framework for the protection of children is set aside. An exceptional route cannot be taken because “there are many” or “I reached an agreement with another State” to avoid obligations assumed before the international community. Is totally prohibited.
With a State like Morocco that, in addition, has just been disapproved by the European Parliament try to blackmail Spain politically with their children.
That makes this even more absurd. There was an accusation of the use of children in Morocco’s political strategy and it is difficult to think that the solution could be to return them to a country that has already realized its deficit, disinterest or lack of will when it comes to protecting their rights. There is no discussion that collective resolutions are not possible: solutions must be adopted on a case-by-case basis and return is not the only option.
How should the collaboration of the countries of destination be articulated with those of origin?
We must work seriously, not from a pulpit, with short, medium and long-term objectives, on how to strengthen the child protection system, address structural causes, deepen mechanisms for democratic stability and decent living conditions … In planning, we end up discussing the consequences, which does nothing more than aggravate the problem. Historically, the priority for Europe has been more on African countries collaborating in migration control than on the underlying motivations for displacement.
“The ‘pull effect’ is the conditions people flee from”
The Government of Ceuta excuses itself by claiming that asking for solidarity from the rest of the autonomies for a distribution of the minors in foster care would feed a kind of ‘call effect’.
If one looks at the realities of the world’s migration routes, the evidence is overwhelming: it is not the policies that protect rights that generate the ‘pull effect’. If so. It would be inexplicable that in the last ten months 1.3 million people have entered the United States through its southern border despite an extremely restrictive immigration policy, without an immigration regularization since the mid-eighties … The ‘call effect’ is the conditions from which people are fleeing, not the legislation of the country to which they arrive. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between policies that respect the law and rights and an increase in arrivals. It is amply proven globally.
Why do you think that route is discarded then?
I cannot say why the Government of Ceuta, after years of asking for it over and over again, has renounced it, but in any case we should not speak of solidarity, which is also because it is a constitutional principle in Spain. Solidarity must be given a legal meaning in terms of co-responsibility when we speak of protecting children’s rights. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child already said in 2018 that a global mechanism is needed, that the protection rules cannot vary between regions, that a child cannot be overcrowded in Ceuta or the Canary Islands and with all the conditions in another region .
Are politicians afraid to pay a political price for being jointly responsible for migrant children its criminalization by the extreme right?
It is clear that there is a global boom in the extreme right-wing use of the immigration issue, as a discursive strategy to grow politically. This impulse has been pushing to the right the positions and policies of the rest of the parties, ignoring the structural factors that push the population to move to prevent exercising the human right to leave your country, recognized since 1948 at the request of Western countries in full discussion with the Soviet bloc. Now they are the first ones that make it impossible for millions of people to exercise it. Just look at what is happening in Afghanistan and we already know what has happened on Lesbos and other routes. Instead of debating about how to reverse this process, we ended up immersed in the discussion that the extreme right is leading us to.
With the case of Ceuta, more emphasis has been placed, in fact, on the violation of the Immigration Law than on the Protection of Minors. Is it a focus error?
The Law for the Protection of Minors makes it very clear that it is the responsibility of public administrations to ensure the best interests of the minor as the supreme guiding principle. It should include more explicitly references to the migrant child or asylum seeker, even if it is repeated by the Immigration regulations. Ideally, the Regulations for the Asylum Law be approved and incorporate procedures so that unaccompanied children can request international protection.
However, the Convention is sufficiently detailed so that a State like Spain, where there is already jurisprudence in this regard, does not pervert the guardianship system. The guardian of an unaccompanied minor must be someone specialized in childhood matters who ensures that each step pursued the objective of protecting their rights individually, taking into account the vulnerability of each case. If it works badly, as it seems to have happened in Ceuta, it must be repaired with specialized legal assistance, an opinion from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, a process that collects information and evaluates individually … None of that has happened.
The authorities also allege that it is “impossible” to complete a repatriation applying the law. Is the Spanish one ‘too guaranteeing’ in terms of comparative law?
No. There are countries with much more developed legislation than Spain and others with less. Repatriation is possible if assessments are made as quickly as possible and with the right tools and principles. Yes, it is feasible to conclude that for certain children it is best to return to their country, but that can only be known with a procedure, which those who say that this is a very ‘guarantee’ attempt to avoid.
Countries that systematically make returns, such as the United States and Mexico, with agreements that violate rights and cause damage, given that there are minors who end up being victims of violence after being repatriated. These policies create a circular web of violence, dangers and irregularities, an increasingly dangerous cyclical system that does not stop migration: children are returned, but they leave again and again. Each time they generate more business for human traffickers, they take more risks on the routes, they encounter more dangers along the way …