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17-10-2019 09:44

Opening speech by the President of the House of Representatives, Mr Demetris Syllouris, at the Transnational Youth Forum on the Right to Education

It is with great pleasure that I have accepted the kind invitation of “Hope for Children” CRC Policy Centre to address this Conference. Discussing the important topic” Right to Education: Building a brighter future for the Children on the Move” with key stakeholders and academia - who will surely present useful comparative data and analysis - will help us better understand the issues at stake and the policy adjustments required. 

Fostering a more inclusive society in Cyprus should continue to be our common objective. With migratory flows increasing rapidly over the years, the composition of Cypriot society has also evolved; migrant communities of asylum seekers and refugees are growing steadily and are part of our reality. As a host country with limited resources and capacities, the pressure on public authorities to adequately respond to the needs of these people has been significant. Structures and policies have been put into place and are functioning fairly well, although there is always room for improvement. 

At this point, may I underline that while being firmly committed to our own contractual obligations as an EU member country, host country, country of destination or transit country, it is our strong belief that a more equitable burden sharing as regards migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, must be agreed upon at EU level, as some countries have been carrying a disproportionate responsibility and weight.

As a forward looking, open European country, Cyprus has adhered to all international legal norms and instruments, guaranteeing the protection of the rights of the Child. Beyond its contractual obligations, however, the unprecedented migrant crisis has called for a more humane response, based on solidarity, particularly towards the more vulnerable and exposed groups of our society, such as migrant children or, more adequately put, “children on the move”. This category, which may include unaccompanied minors, is an extremely precarious group of people, who, due to their highly vulnerable state, often have suffered persistent violations of their human rights. It is our duty as policy makers to do our best to provide them the highest possible level of care and protection. 

Children’s wellbeing and the careful determination of what policy responses match their best interest should also be at the forefront of our considerations as regards migrant children’s right and access to education. The effective schooling of these children in our mainstream educational system and learning the spoken language, is the best way to facilitate their integration and bolster their ability to contribute effectively to the economic, social and cultural development of our society. At the same time, it is important to make these children feel comfortable in practicing their own language and culture. That is why, at my own initiative, we have introduced the Arabic language in our educational system, so that children of Arab origin can maintain and strengthen their attachment to their mother tongue while in Cyprus.  

Our educational system must reinforce the guardianship system already in place, that guarantees access of migrant children to all the rights they are entitled to. It is through their active participation and integration in the school environment, that they will be able to communicate, make friends and exchange values, concerns and interests with their peers. School can be an excellent vehicle for integration and intercultural interaction between children from different horizons. These interactions can in turn foster civic identity and a sense of belonging and responsibility towards the host country. We must resist the creation of ghettos that only breed xenophobia, racism and discrimination. By bringing these children closer to us, we will in fact be protecting them against violence, abuse, exploitation, marginalisation and trafficking and fostering a culture of tolerance and diversity, which are the basic prerequisites for progress, prosperity and social justice. We must make sure that these minors do not fall through the loopholes of child protection structures and ensure that policies are not fragmented but unified and complimentary. 

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth has already put into place a series of supportive actions aimed at facilitating migrant children’s integration. These include language courses, assistance with homework and afternoon supervision, as well as psychological support services to parents and children. In addition, the Tripartite Agreements Cyprus has pursued with countries of the Middle East also cover the area of education and information technology. Partnership agreements with Arab countries are being pursued in the fields of education and culture, as are also exchanges between universities and other academic institutions in the Arab world. 

I should like to pay special tribute to the work done in this field by some NGOs, positively contributing in providing a gateway to migrant children in need of care and protection. I have visited the Hope for Children shelter for unaccompanied minors in Nicosia and was impressed with the quality and professionalism of services, including in-house support that covers educational assistance, community, youth and volunteering initiatives, legal counselling and personal empowerment activities, as well as follow-up measures for supervising and assisting young persons in their sometimes difficult transition to adulthood and the labour market. Participatory work with such children is vital in supporting their development and combating radicalisation. 

It is important to remember that, irrespective of their immigration status, background or citizenship, children are first and foremostly children and should be treated as such, with dignity and as unique and valuable human beings with an individual personality, distinct needs, interests and privacy. The Cyprus House of Representatives stands ready to legislate in any way that may still better protect migrant children and prohibit all forms of violence or discrimination against them.