Having worked with children at risk for the last 20 years, I keep finding the phrase “best interest of the child” not only in legal texts but also in my daily work. This broad term has always been debated, as it is quite general and rarely applied on a case-by-case basis. It is one of the four fundamental principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with the other three being Non-Discrimination, The right to survival and development, and Respecting the views of the child. Much could be said about all these principles and whether they are respected in Europe today, but given a recent event I would like to dwell on the principle of the best interests of the child. What do we mean by it? And, more importantly, who is responsible for deciding what the best interest of the child is?
On June 15, 2021, Hungary banned by law the “promotion of homosexuality to minors” punishable with prison sentences, opening the way for art and literary censorship. The official authority of the Czech Republic applauded that decision, while Poland had already made the start with their “LGBT Ideology Free Zones” to protect children and families. For the same reasons, Poland was considering withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention on the Rights of Women. Turkey, which is the EU’s key partner on the migration agenda and officially acknowledged as a safe country to return refugees and protect their human rights, has already withdrawn from the convention which was signed in its capital city.
To protect “the best interests of unborn children” in the EU, Malta still bans abortions, Poland has made them almost impossible, Spain bans a website offering information about abortion and contraception while Ireland has put the individual right to reproductive choice to a referendum in order to decriminalize it. On the other hand, Greece rushed to establish a “day of the unborn child”, ignoring the fact that many already born children suffer in the country daily.
Back to the recently introduced Hungarian legislation, 16 EU countries rushed to condemn this decision. Greece joined as the 17th a day later, while Portugal, which is currently holding the EU presidency, did not take a position using that exact reason as an excuse!
Greece, which of course respects children’s right to survival and development and always has “the best interest of the child” in mind, still keeps unaccompanied children in prison cells even though this practice has been officially abolished since December 2020. Other EU Member States have regularly condemned the detention of minors, but in practice had no problem tolerating it as a “necessary evil” – as long as the children stayed in the Greek “Morias” and did not knock on their front door. In “the best interest of the child”, Northern European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands refuse unaccompanied children’s reunification with their families. In “the best interests of the child”, minors are denied a speedy examination of their asylum application in most EU countries. In Greece, unaccompanied children are still left without a guardian, although the law on guardianship has been passed since 2018. However, Northern European countries such as the Netherlands have no problem spending money to support non-existent fostering and guardianship projects at EU border states, as long as they do not have to relocate the minors to their own territory. In “the best interests of the child”, minors -accompanied and unaccompanied- are being pushed back at the Franco-Italian or EU-Balkan borders, often violently. For their “best interest”, minors are herded together in the jungles of Calais and the hotspots of Greece and Italy, while affluent countries as Denmark make it their aim to proudly become a country with “zero asylum seekers”.
There can’t be a gray zone here. As the Greek proverb says: you cannot be “slightly” pregnant, either you are or not. In the same way, you cannot be pro-human rights, or anti-racist selectively. You can either be an anti-racist or a hypocrite.
I work with children by choice. I always considered them much more interesting and honest than adults. No child is born racist, homophobic, violent. No boy is born an abuser and no girl is born a victim. No child is born planning to become a refugee. All this happens because adults believe that they are “acting in the best interests of minors”. Margaret Mead once very wisely said, “children must be taught how to think, not what to think”. By criminalizing homosexuality, we create homophobic children who will become homophobic adults; by criminalizing abortions we create unhappy families, thus unhappy children; by criminalizing migration we create racists of all ages; by not criminalizing abuse and domestic violence we create perpetrators and victims.
Which brings us to the original question: who is responsible for deciding on the best interests of each child? And, most importantly, who will put it into practice? History shows that there is no answer. Each child starts their journey from a microcosm and slowly expands from there. Here lie our responsibilities and our mission as social beings: what we choose to offer to each child we meet during our personal or professional life. Respecting each child’s best interest, the right to non-discrimination, the right to survival and development, and always taking under consideration the views of each child.
Because exactly as Khaled Hosseini said “Children aren’t colouring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favourite colours.”