International Bar Association


Given to the meeting of the International Bar Association on 26th November 2020

Good morning from London to you wherever you may be in the world. 

Can I start by commending the President of the International Bar Association, Horacio Bernardes Neto, for prioritising both at this event and previously at your 2019 conference in Seoul  the plight of the millions of migrant children who are displaced across the world. 

And thank you to Anne O’Donoghue for your work chairing this session and to your co-chair and his team whom we will hear from shortly.

Every child who is without a home, out of contact with their parents, siblings or wider family is a shocking reality which as a global community we are yet to fully understand or recognise. 

Over recent years we have seen the world move to a situation of fragility and uncertainty, with many root causes, but a common symptom has been the most vulnerable and those in poverty are the worst affected.

It is now almost universally accepted how unrecognised and irresponsible exploitation and mismanagement of the environment and nature has threatened our long-term existence, and that urgent action is now needed.  

Next year one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders will take place in Scotland, seeking ways to reverse this mismanagement, something which I fully support, and it is incumbent on world leaders to set goals to achieve carbon neutral emissions by 2050. Viewed from the perspective of faith, this challenge takes on a deeper motivation, for the natural world is sustained by its Creator and is to be respected, as the Psalms say, ‘As the work of your Hands, O Lord.’ And a profound humanitarian motivation sees the created world in its wholeness, as an ecology for human progress, and its protection as a service to humanity. 

But also of importance are the marginalised and displaced children who in 2050 on reaching their 40th birthday may see little benefit of such a great achievement if over the same three decades they have to live in a marginalised underclass, stateless, absent of proper education or access to employment.  We also need urgent action to reverse this global tragedy, something I believe can be achieved in a shorter time frame than 30 years.

Whether it be greed or wilful blindness, enterprises which seek simply to exploit and increase lucrative market demands are rightly being called to account. Business in all its forms has to re-examine its relationship with the society in which it operates. It is good to see major companies beginning to reshape their sense of purpose, with initiatives such as the Blueprint for Better Business enabling businesses to reshape their sense of purpose in relation to wider demands of society and the environment. All too often the poorest are left behind, while investment and capital returns benefit the wealthy not only located in different countries from where the wealth is generated, but often on different continents. 

Conflict and oppression see many people flee fear of persecution, including people of faith.  Former UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt highlighted the pervasive persecution of Christians, ongoing in parts of the Middle East.  Now that is also the case in parts of Africa with 620 Christians murdered in Nigeria in the first five months of 2020 alone.

When speaking of human tragedy reciting numbers can be a double-edged sword. They can illustrate the drama of so many problems, calling extra effort from those who are concerned. But they can also evoke a harsher response. Sometimes the higher the numbers, the more oppressive and exclusionary are the solutions. This we have seen with the withdrawal of rescue missions in the Mediterranean or the deployment of military on sea and in the air in the English Channel. 

First and foremost, we must remember no matter how large a number, each displaced child is an individual, a son or a daughter, people we rightly see as our brothers and sisters. 

Nevertheless, I will speak of the numbers of individual people.  

In 2019, international migrants reached 272 million; 33 million of them were children.

Among the world’s migrants are nearly 29 million refugees and asylum seekers who have been forcibly displaced from their own countries. 

An additional 41 million people in 2018 were internally displaced due to conflict and violence, an estimated 17 million of whom were children.

And all of this predates COVID and the socioeconomic challenges it brings for children on the move. There are four dimensions to the danger they face: survival, poverty, health and learning. This is true not just in low middle income countries but in the wealthier nations such as the UK, US, Germany and Australia. 

Even with the high risk to so many children the UN reports, data remains weak and unreliable.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2018 reported that there are 70.8 million displaced people in the world and among them 25.9 million refugees, 50 per cent of whom are children.

And children represented 54 per cent of the refugee population of Africa, or four million young lives.

Exacerbating the situation, and another consequence of COVID, is a global rise in domestic violence incidents, creating radical instability in home life. Suspicion, stigma and discrimination against the displaced are increasing, not just through bigotry of individuals but also in legislation and policy of government responses, with a willingness to overlook or disregard international agreements or conventions. 

But there are potential solutions we must move towards, even amidst the current crisis. Experience teaches that effective and shared responses are available and must be nurtured. 

On issues of human rights and migration the Church is working together with the international community.  For example the Santa Marta Group brings together law enforcement, civil society and faith communities from across the world to address human trafficking by promoting measures that protect the dignity, rights and freedoms of a trafficked person. 

And the Refugee and Migrant Section of the Vatican, under the direct authority of Pope Francis, has developed 20 points in response to the United Nations Global Compacts. One is directed to the processes of safe, orderly and regular migration. Another is focussed on refugees, to encourage and initiate a unique opportunity to respond together through international cooperation and shared responsibility. 

I do not have time to mention all 20 points, but I will focus on those most relevant to today’s theme. They are contained in four of the recommendations, in numbers 1, 7, 8, and 9. 

The first and perhaps overriding principle is contained in Recommendation 1 - To Welcome: To do this requires enhancing safe and legal channels for migrants and refugees. Migration should be safe, legal and orderly, and the decision to migrate voluntary. 

I believe far too much of the world only welcomes people of privilege.  A welcome to migrants and displaced people will take measures including:

 a. Adopting the practice of extending humanitarian visas, or expanding their use as a national policy priority. 

b. Encourage the wider use of student visas, including for apprenticeship and internship programmes as well as all levels of formal education. 

c. To adopt humanitarian corridor programmes that grant legal entry with a humanitarian visa to people in particularly vulnerable situations, including those forced to flee conflict and natural disasters. 

d. To adopt legislation which enables local integration through community and private sponsorship by citizens, communities and organisations. In the UK we, as the Catholic Church, alongside other Christian Churches, have been engaged in these sponsorship programmes for some time.

e. Through adopting resettlement policies for refugees.

f. To provide family reunification visas or expand the number of such visas issued, particularly for the reunification of all family members. 

g. To adopt national policies which permit those forced to flee armed conflict, persecution or widespread violence in their countries of origin to be received immediately, even if temporarily.

h. A responsible and dignified welcome of migrants and refugees ‘begins by offering them decent and appropriate shelter’. The enormous gathering together of persons seeking asylum and of refugees has not produced positive results. 

Recommendation 7 is to encourage states to comply with their obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) when enacting domestic legislation to address the vulnerable situation of unaccompanied children or minors separated from their family. 

To do this would need: 

a. Adopting alternatives to mandatory detention, which is never in the best interest of the child, no matter their migratory status. 

b. To provide foster care or guardianship for unaccompanied children or minors while they are separated from their family. 

c. By establishing separate processing centres for families, minors and adults. 

Recommendation 8 again seeks to encourage states to comply with their obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) when dealing with all migrant minors and recommend the following actions, among others: 

a. To adopt procedures that guarantee legal protections to minors approaching the age of majority. In particular, enact legislation that preserves their legal status and prevents them from becoming undocumented and thus subject to detention and deportation. 

b. To adopt procedures that permit minors that are close to the age of majority to continue their education without interruption. 

c. To adopt and implement policies that require the registration of all births, providing each new-born with a birth certificate. 

And finally recommendation 9, which seeks to encourage states to adopt national policies that provide equal access to education for migrant, asylum seeker and refugee learners of all levels: 

a. By enacting national or regional policies which provide migrants and refugees with access to primary and secondary education no matter their migratory status. 

b. To enact policies which provide that the primary and secondary education to which migrants and refugees have access meets the same standards of education received by citizens. 

As I said I have only referred to four of the 20 recommendations and I would strongly advise you may wish to examine all 20 when coming to your own recommendations and conclusions as these have been prepared from the experience of many individuals and organisations across the world, including policy makers and those supporting migrants in some of the most challenging of environments. 

Before I close, I would like to draw on the human dimension and the importance of a human rights approach and policy that reflects this.

In the UK a trial is underway concerning the deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals found in the back of a lorry in October 2019.  Of the 31 males and eight females, 10 were teenagers, two being only 15 years of age. 

The family of a 26-year-old victim made public her last text message to her parents which she sent as she was dying. Her family said they paid around £30,000 to smuggle their daughter from Vietnam to the UK.

These deaths and many other tragic events are evidence that current policies are not working and all too often may increase risk and benefit those who profit out of the commodification of human suffering.

I hope that no life lost or destroyed is in vain. It is people like yourselves, as highly qualified lawyers, that the Holy See, under the leadership of Pope Francis, seeks to work with, internationally, to bring change through collaboration.

In my lifetime I never again want to see suffering like that of October last here in the UK, but I recall thinking similarly in February 2004, when in Morecambe Bay in North West England, we saw at least 21 Chinese undocumented immigrant labourers drowned by an incoming tide after the forced and unsafe labour of picking cockles in a dangerous river estuary.

Just as we need global commitment to reverse the damage to the climate, so too we need enactment and delivery of many commitments already made at multi-lateral and domestic level to protect all migrants, but in particular for displaced children. 

Thank you for inviting me to participate and I wish you all the very best in your work.  Please keep yourselves and your loved ones safe at this difficult time. May God bless you all.