20 years ago, on February 24 1997, the Swiss State ratified the Convention on the rights of the child!

The Convention on the rights of the child (CRC), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20 1989, is the most ratified Convention in the world. This international instrument is revolutionary for its recognition of children as actors of society and of their rights.

In Switzerland, the CRC has had a significant impact. On the 20th anniversary of its ratification by the Swiss State, the ADEM aims to reflect upon the rights of migrant children in Switzerland. While the implementation of their rights is essential, it faces a number of challenges. Toward this end, during the course of the year, the ADEM will publish a series of articles specifically dedicated to the rights of accompanied and unaccompanied migrant children in Switzerland.

To start off the series, the ADEM presents an interview with Rolf Widmer, President of the ISS and of the TIPITI association. He will share his insight borne from 30 years of experience in the field of asylum policy in Switzerland.

Interview of Rolf Widmer

By Elodie Antony (SSI) and Lorène Métral (Tdh)

«There are no refugee children, or illegal children. There are just children »

For the past 40 years, Rolf Widmer has been involved in developing living spaces for children who are unable to grow up in their own family. This interview contains his insight on the provision of care for unaccompanied minors in Switzerland, based on his decade of experience heading the Organization for Asylum of Canton Zurich (AOZ), and his fifteen years of experience heading the Swiss Foundation for the International Social Service (ISS). He is currently president of the ISS and of the Tipiti association.

30 years ago, Switzerland witnessed the influx of the first unaccompanied minors from Africa. How were they welcomed at the time?

In the ‘90s, the care of unaccompanied migrant children was not at all on the political agenda. Only the Swiss Cantons of Geneva and Basel possessed legal frameworks which allowed specific intervention. In other Cantons, unaccompanied minors were not considered as children, but first and foremost as asylum seekers. They were housed in centres without adequate oversight or support. No one thought that these young people deserved special care. At the time, no one talked about unaccompanied migrant children. From a procedural perspective, migrant children were treated in the same manner as migrant adults.

What drew you to this issue?

Every child needs an individualized form of support. In my view, there was no difference between unaccompanied minors and other children. They should receive the exact same treatment as all other children in Switzerland, including in terms of access to schooling and psychosocial support.

Can you tell us about your memories related to the arrival of migrant children in Switzerland over the past 20 years?

The trigger factor for awareness on the issue of unaccompanied child migrants was the beginning of the conflict in ex-Yougoslavia in 1992. A large number of children came to Switzerland with their mothers, aided by humanitarian action. In 1993-1994, Switzerland also witnessed the incoming of unaccompanied child migrants fleeing African conflicts. At this time, the first sector specifically created for the care of unaccompanied child migrants emerged in the AOZ in Zurich.

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