If you want to make people understand the importance of the EU, start at the national level with public campaigns

Pien Klieverik, Legal Officer, Defence for Children-ECPAT The Netherlands and Coordinator for the Dutch Children’s Rights Coalition (Eurochild National Partner Network) speaks to us from Leiden.

- Defence for Children Netherlands was founded in 1984. Since its creation, are the challenges faced by the children of that time still the same ones of today? How have your priorities as an organisation changed?

At the beginning our main challenge was just to make the general public aware of children’s rights; so the main task was education on children’s rights, spreading the word, highlighting the importance of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It still is nowadays, but we also focus on some specific themes. For example, right from the start actually, we focus on children who can no longer live at home and are placed in foster care or institutions. 

Another focus is juvenile justice, together with child poverty as it has been on the rise in the Netherlands. 421.000 children are estimated to be living at risk of or in poverty; it is very hard for them to get out of such a living situation. Especially for children turning 18 years and leaving care institutions, as they have to become independent: another priority.

Nowadays we also deal with new and emerging issues such as online safety, child pornography, surrogacy and donor-conceived children. On the issue of child pornography, we work on prevention and also reach out to web hosting companies to take responsibility. Another change in our priorities is linked to the decentralisation here in the Netherlands, since in 2015 many responsibilities shifted from the central to the local government and that has created a lot of issues in terms of accessibility and differences in quality of care. 

We successfully lobbied to have an office of the children’s ombudsperson here in the Netherlands. They are doing a lot of work, but now a new challenge is understanding which actors are involved in the implementation of children’s rights, how we supplement each other and what our role as the Dutch Children’s Rights Coalition is.

- Can you explain how the Dutch Children's Rights Coalition functions?

The Dutch Coalition started when the Netherlands ratified the Convention in 1995. We used to do quite a lot of lobbying, organising all kind of actions and round table discussions on current issues but quite recently, last year, we moved toward being a monitoring coalition. We are trying to be at the table with decision makers, politicians, and academic institutions and influence policy. The Coalition was set up by UNICEF The Netherlands, Defence for Children The Netherlands, the Dutch Institute for Care and Well-being and the national association of children’s legal counselling.  

We have a steering committee of the seven active members who meet twice a year. Then there’s a Working Committee doing the day-to-day work and preparatory work for the Steering Committee. Since January 2017 we have a new chair, Laurien Koster. You might have met her at the Eurochild General Assembly this year in Brussels. She used to be a judge and the Chairwoman of the Dutch Institute for Human Rights and holds an independent position as chair. 

At last year’s general elections in the Netherlands, we decided to prioritise 10 themes (PDF in NL) that we wanted to get across to politicians and the general public. Some of these themes include: 

Youth care and financial support within a decentralized system in which 390 municipalities are responsible for 3.5 million children; access to primary and secondary education; child friendly migration policy; children’s participation, juvenile justice, children’s rights and well-being indicators and working with businesses to protect children’s rights in relation to child labour.  

- Tell us more about the migration issues affecting children in Netherlands.

In 2015 we had 3,859 unaccompanied minors arriving in The Netherlands. We want the best interests of the child to have a central place in the asylum procedure. We are now specifically focusing on children who have been living here for more than five years and then are sent back to the country of origin. 

For them, we have the “Children’s Pardon”, a policy arrangement that states that if children stay in the Netherlands for more than five years then they are rooted into our society, and therefore have the right to remain in our country. On paper this is really good but in practice there are so many conditions to fulfill that about 90 per cent of the requests are not granted and the children are sent back. Many Dutch NGOs, including some of our members, are repeatedly asking the government to adapt the Children’s Pardon to turn it into a piece of law that is actually helping children, instead of sending them back to their country of origin after a long stay in The Netherlands. 

An underlying challenge is that the Dutch asylum procedures are still way too long, leading to families staying here and children following education and developing their lives for many years before there is clarity on whether they can stay or not. 

- One of the thematic areas in which DCI NL operates is child trafficking. What is the situation in the Netherlands and in Europe?

Together with ECPAT International, we work with both foreign and domestic victims of child trafficking. In the Netherlands there are quite some victims from West Africa (such as Nigeria: in 2016 there were 5 girls below 18, and 29 girls older than 18 identified). In recent years, children also come from Vietnam and Eritrea. They are forcibly brought here to work in prostitution. Unfortunately, their protection depends on their residency status: if they are not entitled to stay in the Netherlands, they are not entitled to protection.  To avoid being sent back, they usually start an asylum procedure but sometimes they disappear and lose their papers and their rights. Younger victims can stay in asylum centres but when they turn 18 years old they are forced to leave. 

Also, children from Eastern Europe are more and more brought here for petty crimes such as pickpockets or shoplifting. Some are unaccompanied, some are with other family members. They disappear from child protection centres. 

Another common phenomenon in the Netherlands that DCI-ECPAT is working on is the ‘loverboys’ issue. The victims are mainly girls who are romantically seduced and then exploited, for example in prostitution. There are cases when these girls still live with their parents, and other where they move in with these ’loverboys’. Because of a strong psychological aspect it is really hard for parents to come in between. We have safe houses for these girls in secret locations, where their ‘loverboys’ cannot find them. The parents can visit them and try to rebuild their relationship.

- How does the Children’s Rights Helpdesk, run by Defence for Children, work? What kind of support do you offer?

The Children’s Rights Helpdesk has different sections: youth law, migration, exploitation, and offers primarily legal support. The last section is run by ECPAT and works mostly on trafficking. In our migration department, we help people with their asylum procedures, we help them write the letters they need to request help. We advise on legal matters concerning asylum procedures or Children’s Pardon procedures. At the same time we provide social support and give general information on children’s rights and how to use them. The section on Youth Law works on issues of child abuse, poverty, the position of children in divorces, youth care, out of home placements, foster care etc. 

- What is the most common challenge children themselves face in the Netherlands?

The most common issue children have in the Netherlands is feeling that they have been treated unfairly, for example in school when they do not agree with their punishment or when they’re parents do something that they do no agree with. A lot of children also ask us questions regarding religion. For example, “my parents believe, do I need to believe in God as well, do I need to go to church’’. Sometimes they are scared to talk about this to their parents. Another issue that children often ask questions about is their right to be heard, and how they would like to see this implemented, or when they feel this rights has been ignored.

- The Dutch Coalition's website asks users to identify as young people or adults; are you producing material that is specifically designed for children? 

Yes, we produce different materials for different type of audiences, adults and children or young people. We are also trying to make it very interactive with quizzes, polls and video material. We also announce events that might be interesting for children. We did it in a particularly participatory way; we worked with children and young people to create the new website. 

Children have repeatedly asked us for a chat function, as they find it difficult or quite challenging to write an email or pick up the phone to reach the Children’s Rights Helpdesk. So, they were saying that it would be easier for them, and less of a barrier if they can use a chat function on the website. To communicate with us, and maybe, who knows, in the future, to use this platform to speak to each other. 

To be honest I have to admit that it really helped to get out of the children’s rights bubble that most professionals get stuck in. You can now have a look at our website without knowing what children’s right are. You really need to begin at a basic level, to make the general public aware about what children’s rights are, what we can do with them, what they mean, where they come from. We also use lots of visuals and videos to engage!

- Could you describe the process of involving children in the development of this website? 

The Dutch Government asked us to create a website which gives all the basic information on children’s rights. We started with surveys in schools and then worked with children and designers together on both the content and the layout. These children were also involved in the festive launch of the website. We are now frequently asking children what they think of the website, how they use it and what they would suggest as improvements. 

- Now that you are mentioning the government, do you see any results at a national level of the influence you have in relation to the EU? Do you reckon that people understand the importance of coordination between national and European level? 

I think the importance is definitely recognised, but many of our members and sometimes the government as well find it confusing or challenging to understand the processes at EU level, the way it works in Brussels and how it could help them in their work.

So, I am always very pleased with the guidance we receive from Eurochild, because if it was not for you, I would not have as thoroughly understood, for example, how the EU Semester works or all the other processes at the EU level. 

On a local level, it is even more challenging, as most municipalities feel that it is so far away from their daily practice, that sometimes I see that it does not really help to start talking about all these EU guidelines or EU information, because the audience might just stop listening. Of course, this is different when you are lobbying the central government. Luckily there are some political parties and Members of Parliament that are very pro-European and they do recognise the importance of engaging with the EU level. 

I think that if you really want to reach out and make people understand the importance of the EU, it has to start at the national level, for example with public campaigns or TV commercials, to reach also those people who do not read the news online or who are not aware of what is going on in Brussels. You have to show to people why this is relevant information / guidelines for them to use in their daily practice. 

- Final question – are there any projects or calls that you think our members might be interested at that you would like to share with us? 

Firstly, we are always looking for members to engage in new EU proposals, for example in the Administration for justice or juvenile justice. Currently there are also quite a lot of interesting calls going around regarding poverty and social exclusion of children.

We also have a big proposal pending at the moment that has been sent out recently to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It relates to the MATRA programme, a social transformation programme for countries at the borders of the EU to work and improve legislations and policies. If the proposal is granted, we will actively work in four countries: Kosovo, Albania, Ukraine and Georgia, and will work closely with local partners in these four countries. 

In conclusion, I would really like to say that both at DCI-ECPAT The Netherlands and at the Children’s Rights Coalition we are really happy with Eurochild’s work. We always feel guided in terms of how to engage in EU policies, and we are very happy about that!

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