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Syrische vluchtelingkinderen op een school in Beiroet, Libanon - Adam Patterson/Panos/DFID

Summer school brushes up on children's rights

Digitisation and poor reception of refugees are putting children’s rights at risk. This warning comes from Professor Ton Liefaard. His department is organising a summer school on this issue.

The Frontiers of Children’s Rights summer school  is taking place from 11 to 15 July and is an initiative of the Department of Child Law and the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at Leiden University. During this week the 30 participants will have a crash course on child rights. Many of them are engaged with this theme from their professional background, as support worker, legal expert or ambtenaar. This year, for example, legal experts from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in Costa Rica are taking part, as are civil servants from Sint Maarten and Curaçao.

Extra vulnerable

Since the signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, increasing attention has been focused on child rights. Important steps forward have been taken in the struggle against child abuse and exploitation. But we still have a long way to go, Ton Liefaard warns. He has held the UNICEF chair in child rights since 2012  and is one of the lecturers at the summer school.  'We are seeing for example that children are extra vulnerable online. They are very sensitive to the stimuli from marketing and sexual exploitation. That calls for new types of protection. Currently it is mainly the state that is responsible for the safety of children, but maybe we should move towards a model where businesses are also responsible.'

Migration flows

Not only this, the flow of migration to Europe is a major threat for under-age children. According to the Save the Children aid organisation, in 2015 alone 26,000 unaccompanied children travelled to Europe. Some of them disappeared under the radar, possibly because they ended up in child prostitution or child labour. If they do make it to their final destination, the problems are far from over. Liefaard: ‘In the Netherlands, refugee children often have to move between different reception centres, and access to education is not always guaranteed. Not only that, little attention is paid to the traumatic experiences they have undergone in their country of origin and en route to Europe.'

Lack of political will

‘We are not aware enough of just how much harm this can cause to these children. You only see that when you reduce the problems at macro level to the problems of a single child,' Liefaard comments. 'But a lack of political will and clout are obstacles to finding a long-term solution. Politicians continue to say that they hadn't expected this enormous influx of refugees. But that's either untrue or naive: the conflicts in the Middle East have been going on for yeaers and it was to be expected that countries in the region couldn't receive all these people.'


During the summer school, participants learn to look at these and other problems from different perspectives. An academic, for example, will be talking about the rights of migrants and the duties of governments. A policymaker from the Ministry of Security and Justice will talk about what this means in practical terms in the country of arrival, for example in terms of housing and schooling. And a member of staff of UNICEF will reflect on the issues from the viewpoint of the child refugees themselves. 

Serve the environment

Liefaard hopes that after the summer school the participants will return home with new knowledge and renewed inspiration. 'Academic research has to serve the practical environment, certainly in my field,' he says. 'That's why it is so important to transfer this knowledge as effectively as possible. Not only that, the summer school gives participants the opportunity to reflect on their own activities and to build up a good network.'

Child rights in Leiden

For a long time no structural attention was paid in the Netherlands to child rights in research and teaching. That changed when Ton Liefaard became the holder of the UNICEF chair  in 2012. This was an initiative of UNICEF, Leiden University and the Leiden University Fund (LUF). Since then the university has developed to become an international knowledge centre in the area of child rights, and now offers a unique master's programme. A large proportion of the students come from non-Western countries where child rights are still below standard.

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