“There is no cause which merits a higher priority than the protection and development of children, on whom the survival, stability and advancement of all nations—and, indeed, of human civilization—depends.”
Action Plan from the World Summit for Children, September 30th, 1990
In Melilla, as in the whole of Spain, there has been a tendency for some time to look for those guilty of all that is going wrong. This search for blame often ends up with the finger pointed at the most vulnerable, those who cannot defend themselves and who are not given a voice. They are the ones who carry the difficulties of an entire country on their shoulders, those who face being singled out by the population and those who day after day hear, through politicians, society and the media, about the misfortunes they have supposedly brought to the country. In general, the people targeted are minorities, with little power or voice to defend themselves, with some sign of "otherness", to make it easier for the rest of society to feel disassociated from them.
This is the context in which children who migrate alone find themselves. They are considered "MENAs" (Unaccompanied Foreign Minors) instead of children. They are attacked by politicians, media and groups that criminalise them. This transforms the perception of society, which fears and attacks them, with increasing openness. Child protection systems, which should be in the best interests of the child, on too many occasions don’t work, significantly increasing their vulnerability and helplessness.
Children are subjects of law, but in turn their rights are often not respected or safeguarded.
November 20th is World Children's Day, but today, we are not celebrating. Today, 31 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly agreed on the final text of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is binding for all signatory countries. The text contains the basic human rights of children and adolescents and its four fundamental principles are
The superior right of the child
The right to life, survival and development
Such basic rights as the right to protection, to education, to health, to an adequate standard of living, as set out in the agreement, are violated in each and every one of the children we work with in Melilla. The Law on Foreigners is always applied to them before the Law on Minors, forgetting that first and foremost they are children, before being foreigners, whether they have or don't have papers and regardless of where they were born.
Behind the phenomenon known socially as MENAs, a term which increasingly criminalises, stigmatises and makes us forget that we are talking about CHILDREN, are the children we work with in Melilla. They are no less than children, like any other child in the world, with their dreams, their fears, their concerns and with needs as basic as a simple hug. With the imperative need to have an adult figure that watches over them, protects them and serves as a reference. But they are children who have been forced to grow up suddenly, have had to abandon various stages of their life to become adults, worrying about their survival and leaving aside what would be the life of any other child.
And yet, at times, their condition as children can be glimpsed and they struggle to conceal what they still are: children.
We see this every day in the time we spend with them when we meet, in which, in a less hostile environment than they are used to in their daily lives, they can regain their childhood for a moment. Glances, smiles, demands for affection cannot hide the fact that they are still children trapped in an adult life. But not just any adult life, a life in which they have to find a way to survive and deal with the various forms of violence that they face completely alone. Violence of all kinds, ranging from institutional and police violence to exploitation and social rejection. A life which is not the one they have been looking for, abandoning their right to be a child, to play, to not be afraid. A hard life, very hard, that will mark them for the rest of their days and from which it will be difficult to recover if they do not receive support.
They are children who have had to face fears that many adults cannot even imagine, they have gone beyond their limits, overcome barriers that they would never have imagined before. They have left their homes, their families, their safe environment to face a long and complicated journey for which no one has prepared them.
In the face of all this, we join the demands of all organisations that focus on the protection of children's rights and call on states and other actors responsible for ensuring the best interests of children to do the following:
The need to provide documentation and address legal and criminal aspects. In Melilla, children face an administrative maze in order to get their status regularised and all too often they do not manage to do so. Their rights are openly and constantly violated. Moreover, they have no protection in terms of their legal violations and this means that those who commit these violations, in most cases, go unpunished.
Ensuring safe and protective environments. Within the centres for minors in Melilla, children suffer from overcrowding, unhealthy conditions, abuse of power, threats and a total lack of protection. A centre for minors which has housed up to 1,000 children can never be an adequate response to the protection and care of children and leaves them exposed to greater vulnerability.
Providing emotional references must also be a fundamental element in any intervention. The migratory process in which the children we work with in Melilla embark on is based on uprooting, the lack of adult figures to serve as a reference and the distance from what is normally the only reality they have known, with their family. When they arrive in Melilla they are faced with an extremely hard situation, where they struggle to survive, often without being able to have contact with family members and without being able to tell them about the reality in which they live, in that eagerness to protect those they love most from the pain. In order for these children to be able to cope with this situation and overcome the immense burden it places on their mental health, they need emotional references, who will accompany them in the process and provide them with support.
Creating new narratives with and about them is a crucial element in the intervention. Combating the narrative offered in political, social and media discourses should be the highest priority for a state that wants to consider itself a guarantor of children's rights. Otherwise, the constant discriminatory, destructive and criminalising discourse only pushes children to receive less protection and therefore to face desperate situations of survival, which, in some cases, cause them to be further criminalised.
"When unaccompanied children arrive in Melilla they behave like children. Ten days after living on the street they are children with mischief. After a month, there is no trace of their childish look. They are miniature adults".
(Mae Bachir. Volunteer in Melilla.)
From Melilla, we fight for the right of all children to be able to have a childhood.