Children under the Radar: Vienna conference

Children under the Radar: The Third International Mayors’ NOW Conference promotes dialogue on realising the rights of vulnerable children on the move across Europe and the Middle East

“To deprive hundreds of millions of children of a fair chance in life endangers more than the future of these children. The inter-generational cycle of disadvantage, discrimination and poverty endangers the future of our whole societies.”

Anthony Lake, UNICEF

At the end of January, I had the great privilege of representing the School Bus Project at the third International Mayors’ NOW Conference on “Children under the Radar” in Vienna, Austria. The two-day conference focused on the situation of child refugees and migrants and the problems they face as they move across countries and communities to try to find a safe space in which to build a future. The event brought together a range of experts, Mayors, Members of the European Parliament, civil servants, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and affected immigrants (including newly arrived students from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan) and local residents, to engage in dialogue, share knowledge, and find productive spaces for future collaboration, through a series of lectures, panel discussions, and solution-oriented working sessions.

On Day One, participants heard from mayors from cities in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Austria about the challenges of maintaining the balance between helping refugees and staying in their citizens’ favour to be able to continue the important work of integration and social cohesion. One thing that struck me about this particular session was the extraordinary level of heavy lifting certain countries with limited resources are doing with regards to the refugee crisis. In fact, while neither Lebanon nor Jordan is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, their efforts in providing support to refugees living within their borders put many wealthier countries to shame. Lebanon, with a population of just over 4 million, is currently hosting over 1 million Syrian and 450,000 Palestinian refugees. Despite struggling with significant resource constraints, Lebanon has attempted to integrate Syrian children into their national education system, with (unsurprisingly) mixed levels of success, given the additional strain put on teachers and infrastructure in certain areas with a high concentration of refugees. (To learn more about how the world’s poorest communities in Africa and the Middle East are shouldering the bulk of the refugee burden, please see this recent UNHCR report).

This Voices of Mayors session was followed by two panel discussions: “Educational realities of refugees in the MENAT (Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey) region” and “Diversity and social cohesion in European classrooms”, with presentations by representatives from UNICEF, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Stockholm University, Linz University, the Styrian School Board, and a number of other regional research centres and educational organisations. We were then invited to participate in our choice of working group to continue these crucial conversations around supporting child refugees across these diverse contexts. Along with a dozen or so education researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and refugee students, I had the opportunity to talk through promising practices leading to inclusion and social cohesion in classrooms across Europe, and found myself inspired by the level of engagement, especially among the younger school-aged participants. (To watch the panel discussions, please click on the following links: Educational realities of refugees in the MENAT region and Diversity and social cohesion in European classrooms).

The day ended with a concert featuring performances from the Mobile Music School, an initiative very much in line with our own mission at the School Bus Project. The Mobile Music School was started in 2016 as a collaboration between Marwan Abado and NOW, and facilitates the coming together of children and youth from diverse backgrounds (local, migrant, and refugee) to play music, sing, and dance. (You can watch the concert here: NOW 2017 Concert).

Drawing a slightly smaller but still engaged crowd, Day Two opened with a powerful session on Voices of Refugees, where three resettled refugees from Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria shared their stories. We learned about the trauma of not belonging, and how these three individuals continue to fight for their rights and the rights of fellow refugees who do not necessarily accept them. From this session, the words of Yamen Hussein, a refugee poet from Syria, blew me away: “Refugee is not a description of a type of human, it is a description of a stage in a process.” An important reminder to respond to the current crisis with solidarity, not sympathy, and a recognition of our shared humanity.

During two harrowing panel sessions on Human Trafficking and Children’s Rights, we learned about the failure of nations, communities, and individuals around the world to uphold the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These issues were further explored at the working sessions in the afternoon, though, given the magnitude of abuse and exploitation of refugee children (even with the knowledge of local and national government, and, in some cases, perpetrated by governments themselves), the sense of optimism from the previous day’s working sessions soon evaporated, as participants attempted to chart ways forward, constrained by the grim realities of the current social and political global climate. There is an urgent need for us as an international community to focus on peacebuilding at the local and global level and the prevention of abuse and exploitation and to gather more data to allow us to respond in a meaningful and holistic way to existing cases of abuse and exploitation. (To watch the panel discussions, please click on the following links: Human trafficking and exploitation – daily realities of refugees on the move and Children’s rights: Conflict between universality and cultural particularity?)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to reflect on the many lessons learned during those two days, both in my work as a research scholar on education, migration, and global development at the Wittgenstein Centre in Vienna, and as I continue to collaborate with other members of the School Bus Project family and our partners to help realise the right to education for refugees and vulnerable migrants across Europe. What was reinforced for me during the conference was the shocking double standard with regards to the refugee response, which is illustrated by contrasting the Lebanese refugee response outlined earlier with the recent decision on the part of the UK government to close the Dubs scheme well before bringing its target number of 3,000 vulnerable child refugees to safety in the UK. It has since transpired that the decision to stop at 350 children was taken in part because the UK government claimed that local British communities do not have the capacity to accept any more. Let that sink in for a moment. The ninth largest economy in the world does not have the capacity to accept 3,000 vulnerable children? We must do better. Much better.

I leave you with the words from the final Declaration of Participants of the Third NOW Conference:

“We, the participants of the third NOW Conference – Mayors from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Austria and Germany, EU and local politicians, and scientists, experts and individuals from dozens of countries – pledge to continue developing and sharing our best-practice examples, to stand up for an open society, which shall protect the weakest and welcome those in danger with open arms and an open heart.”

Further information:

Find out more about the NOW Conference 2017

Read the Final Report from the NOW Conference 2017

Follow me on Twitter: @DrStephB

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