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Elianne Zijlstra: do refugee children in the Netherlands have the same rights as other children?

Do refugee children in the Netherlands have the same rights as other children?

Howick and Lili, Sahar, Mauro and Nemr are children who became the face of Dutch asylum policy through the media. They applied for asylum in the Netherlands but faced the threat of being forced to return to their country of origin after long-term residence. The Study Centre for Children, Migration and Law of our faculty conducts research into this group of ‘rooted’ children. Do these children have the same rights as other children in the Netherlands?

Elianne Zijlstra
Photo: ANP Bart Maat

The Study Centre works to increase knowledge on how children’s interests in migration procedures should be investigated and involved in decisionmaking and what decision-makers in the Immigration and Naturalisation Service or the judiciary do with this information. The Centre also works to transfer knowledge to policymakers and politicians in order to set up laws and regulations in line with children’s developmental interests. An example of this is the pardon for children regulation, which should offer prospects to rooted children.

Returning to their country of birth or the country of their parents is often not in the interest of the development of these rooted children. They feel Dutch, they have formed their identity in the Netherlands and they fear the forced return and the break with everything that is familiar to them. Our research shows that children suffer from developmental damage if there is a lack of shelter, income, social network and education after a forced return. In decisions on asylum applications, the developmental interests of children are not taken into account and they are not, or rarely, heard.

This is striking because the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that in all decisions affecting children’s lives, the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors compliance with children’s rights worldwide, writes that a decision cannot be taken in the best interests of the child if the child has not been heard.

In the care for children who have been abused and need to be protected from their parents or carers, there is a system in the Netherlands in which the interests of children are the central starting point. For example, a children’s judge – who is specially trained for this purpose and understands the developmental needs of children – assesses whether there is a serious threat to the child’s development. The child court is advised by the Child Care and Protection Board about a possible child protection measure. There are also terms in Dutch juvenile law that are in line with children’s need for continuity and an assured future perspective.

These child rights guarantees under Dutch juvenile law do not apply to children who, with or without their parents, have fled to the Netherlands from countries that are often unstable when it comes to their asylum applications, which are also requests for protection. Children’s interests should also be a first consideration in the demand for protection of refugee children.

dr. A.E. (Elianne) Zijlstra
First name
Associate Professor
My expertise lies in the application of children's rights (art. 3 best interests of the child, art. 6 right to development, art. 12 participation, art. 2 non-discrimination) in decision-making and safe upgrowing of children. What should be taken into account in decision-making that causes a change in children's living environment?
Specific expertise on the following areas:
- Migration (asylum, refugees, unaccompanied minors)
- Youth protection and out-of-home placement
- Disasters (earthquakes Groningen The Netherlands)
Last modified:29 November 2019 2.12 p.m.
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