Without Papers But Not Without Rights: The Basic Social Rights of Irregular Migrants

Refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France © Matt Sprake
Refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France © Matt Sprake

Those who think that irregular migrants have no rights because they have no papers are wrong. Everyone is a holder of human rights regardless of their status. It is easy to understand that the prohibition of torture protects all people but we should also be aware of the fact that basic social rights are also universal, because their enjoyment constitutes a prerequisite for human dignity. Therefore, member states of the Council of Europe should stand by their obligations to protect the basic social rights of everyone under their jurisdiction, and this includes irregular migrants.

Migrants can be in an irregular situation because they have entered a country, or stayed in a country, in an unauthorised way. Their situation may become irregular because they overstay an authorised period which can last several years. Due to the very nature of irregular migration, it is difficult to estimate the number of irregular migrants currently living in Europe, though the figure undoubtedly runs into the millions.

Barriers placed by states to the exercise of basic social rights

In my work, I have been confronted with too many situations where the social rights of irregular migrants have been deliberately denied by authorities, in contradiction with international and European law. In other countries where these rights are recognised in national legislation, practical obstacles to their exercise have unfortunately proved to be numerous.

The criminalisation of migration and repressive policies of detention and expulsions of foreigners seriously affect the protection of the basic social rights of irregular migrants, not least because they create a general climate of suspicion and rejection against irregular migrants among those who are supposed to provide social services.

Migrants in an irregular situation are too often seen as cheats, liars, social benefits abusers or persons stealing the jobs of nationals. In such a context, law enforcement officials in charge of countering “illegal immigration” often have difficulties in recognising an irregular migrant as a victim of human rights violations and in need of protection.

In some instances, the police are placed under official pressure to attain quantified targets of “repatriations” – I noted this to be the case until 2012 in France. This policy can be particularly harmful to irregular migrants’ access to social rights, because it forces them to live clandestinely and avoid contact with social assistance providers for fear of being arrested, detained or deported. According to a June 2015 study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the main reason for victims of exploitation not reporting their cases to the police is the fear of having to leave the country.

The criminalisation of migration through establishing an “offence of solidarity” against those who try to assist migrants by providing minimum access to shelter, food and healthcare is another unacceptable measure taken by some states in recent years. To guarantee access to basic social rights for irregular migrants, basic service providers such as medical staff should never be placed under an obligation to report irregular migrants to law enforcement authorities.

Access to basic social rights can also be impeded by protracted situations of legal limbo such as that experienced by rejected asylum seekers who cannot be expelled in Denmark. I consider that in situations where return is impossible or particularly difficult, states should find solutions to authorise the relevant person to stay in the country under conditions which meet their basic social needs and respect their dignity.

As indicated in a recent study on the impact of the crisis on access to fundamental rights in the EU, undocumented migrants are among the groups disproportionately affected by austerity measures imposed in the field of healthcare. In Spain, access to healthcare for irregular migrants in most regions was significantly reduced in 2012, until the government recently decided to restore primary health care access, mainly because of the disastrous impact the restrictions had on the national healthcare system. It remains to be seen if the right to access to healthcare of irregular migrants will also improve in practice.

Right to basic social assistance, shelter and food

In some countries, restrictions on access to social rights rest, more or less explicitly, on immigration policies aimed at sending back irregular migrants, including by forcing them into destitution, in order to deter other would-be migrants from coming. States may be tempted to link access to some basic social rights to the residence status of the migrant. In the Netherlands, while the law grants irregular migrants access to emergency healthcare and education, the government has attempted to deny access to shelter, food and water. As noted in my report on the Netherlands, I could witness some of the difficulties experienced by irregular migrants due to this policy during a visit carried out to a disused church in The Hague in 2014, where some 65 irregular immigrants had taken shelter.

As unrestrictedly recognised in many international legal instruments, everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and shelter. Under the European Social Charter, as emphasised by the European Committee of Social Rights, the minimum guarantees for the right to housing and emergency shelter apply to irregular migrants too.

Shelter must be provided even when immigrants have been requested to leave the country and even though they may not require long-term accommodation. The Committee has pointed out that the right to shelter is closely connected to the human dignity of every person, regardless of their residence status. It has also stated that foreign nationals, whether residing lawfully or not in the country, are entitled to urgent medical assistance and such basic social assistance as is necessary to cope with an immediate state of need (accommodation, food, emergency care and clothing).

Protection from exploitation and human trafficking

Everyone, including irregular immigrants, should be protected from labour exploitation and trafficking in human beings in full compliance with Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting slavery, forced labour and by extension human trafficking, and with the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

While in many European countries a residence permit can be granted to victims of trafficking or severe forms of exploitative work staying irregularly on the territory, too often, this applies only under the condition of co-operating with the police. In 20 country evaluation reports, the Group of Experts on action against trafficking in human beings (GRETA) has urged the authorities to ensure that in practice access to assistance for victims of trafficking is not made conditional on their co-operation in the investigation and criminal proceedings: Article 14 of the anti-trafficking Convention allows parties to make the issuing of a temporary residence permit conditional on co-operation and it seems that in some cases this blocks unconditional access to assistance for foreign victims.

States have an obligation to sanction employers exploiting the vulnerability of irregular migrants. From a human rights point of view, what matters most is not that a state fights against “illegal work”, but that irregular migrants are protected and compensated for the human rights violations they have suffered as a result of their exploitation. Foreign domestic workers, because of their isolation, are particularly vulnerable to this form of abuse.

Right to education of children in an irregular situation

Many international and European human rights standards, including the European Social Charter and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, require that access to education be ensured for children regardless of their immigration status. However, too often, schools or other administrative authorities place barriers to irregular migrant children’s right to education by unlawfully asking for documents such as birth certificates as a condition to enrol the child.

Measures to be taken by states

To create an environment favourable to ensuring irregular migrants’ access to inalienable basic social rights, states should not only refrain from criminalising migration but should go further:

  • Consider policies, including regularisation programmes and increased possibilities for legal channels to immigrate for work, so as to avoid or resolve situations whereby migrants are in, or are at risk of falling into, an irregular situation.
  • Ratify and implement international and European treaties relevant for the protection of the rights of irregular migrants, including the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, the 2011 ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and the Revised European Social Charter and its collective complaints mechanism.
  • Train police officers, labour and immigration officials and basic service providers on the human rights of irregular migrants and victims of trafficking in human beings and exploitative work.
  • Inform irregular migrants about their rights and ensure full and equal access to justice for irregular migrants who are victims of exploitation and other human rights abuses by encouraging them to report this without resulting in their prosecution or expulsion.
  • Enable NGOs and trade unions to defend the basic social rights of irregular migrants, including before courts with the victims’ consent.
  • Ensure irregular migrants’ equal access to victim support and assistance mechanisms adapted to the needs of each individual and that are confidential and free of charge.
  • Never call migrants in an irregular situation “illegal migrants” as this would be inaccurate and harmful as stressed by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) in its campaign “Words Matter!”, promoting alternative words to this expression in several European languages.

Background documents

  • European Committee of Social Rights, Collective Complaints Decisions on the merits:
    • Conference of European Churches (CEC) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 90/2013
    • European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 86/2012
    • Defence for Children International (DCI) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 47/2008
    • International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) v. France, Complaint No. 14/2003
  • Press Unit, Registry of the European Court of Human Rights: Factsheet on Trafficking in Human Beings
  • Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Website
  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Resolution 1509 (2006) on human rights of irregular migrants, 27 June 2006
  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Recommendation 1985 (2011) Undocumented migrant children in an irregular situation: a real cause for concern, 7 October 2011

A Black Hole in European History Prevents Full Understanding of the Present

© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

A couple of days ago, we commemorated the liquidation 71 years ago of the so-called “Gypsy family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. On 2 August 1944, 2 897 persons were taken to the gas chambers and exterminated. Only a few months earlier, on 16 May 1944, the detainees of the “Gypsy camp” had refused to obey the orders of the SS soldiers who had come to kill them. Knowledge about both the Roma uprising and the liquidation of the “Gypsy camp” remains limited in European societies today.

A black hole in European history that prevents full understanding of the present

Knowledge of Roma history in Europe is crucial to understanding their current situation. Although many people I have encountered have views about Roma, few know anything about their history.  Most people do not know, for instance, that Roma were banned from the Holy Roman Empire in 1501 and, as of this date, could be caught and killed by any citizen. In France, Louis XIV decreed in 1666 that all Gypsy males should be sent for life to galleys without trial, that women should be sterilised and children put into poorhouses. In Spain, it was decided in 1749 to detain all Roma in an operation known as the “Great Gypsy Round-Up”. In part of what is now Romania (Wallachia and Moldova), Roma were enslaved between the 14th century and 1856. The Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresia imposed a fierce assimilation policy involving the removal of children from the care of their parents.

In more recent times, Roma and Yenish children were forcibly removed from their families in Switzerland, on grounds that their parents would not be able to educate them as good citizens. Similarly, it remains largely unknown in France that Roma who had been detained in camps on French territory during the Second World War were in some cases kept in detention in miserable conditions until the end of 1946, or that Roma survivors of the Nazi concentration camps were left without any support and deprived of nationality long after 1945.

The Roma “Pharrajimos” -the Roma Holocaust- carried out during the Second World War was a culmination of these policies of exclusion, elimination and forced assimilation. About 90% of the Roma population of some countries disappeared as a result of massacres and deportations to concentration camps. However, 70 years after the end of the Second World War, memory work regarding the fate of the Roma is still incomplete. In my report on the Czech Republic (2013) for example, I recalled that a pig farm is still present on the site of the former Lety labour camp, in which Roma were detained during the Second World War and then deported to Auschwitz.

It is also deeply worrying that some mainstream politicians, in a context of growing populism in Europe, have publicly allowed themselves to condone the Roma Holocaust. In addition to trivialising some of the most horrendous human rights violations of the past, such discourse strengthens and legitimises present-day anti-Roma racism.

Keeping in mind this tragic past helps to understand why some Roma may find it difficult to trust majority societies and public institutions today. One cannot disregard the heavy legacy of past practices of forced sterilisation, removal of children and ethnic profiling in current relations between Roma communities and the police or state administrations in general.

Ignorance of the past allows for the perpetuation of human rights violations

The forced sterilisation of Romani women has long been a practice in several countries, with eugenic rhetoric around a supposed “threat of Roma population growth” providing the bedrock for this gross human rights violation. Cases are still sporadically reported in the 21st century. Sweden and Norway have recently established commissions in order to investigate past abuses, including forced sterilisation, and to promote redress and reconciliation. The Czech government presented apologies to forced sterilisation victims in 2009. However, other countries have not yet acknowledged their responsibilities, provided adequate redress to victims or sanctioned those responsible for this human rights violation.

A certain continuity from past to present can also be discerned in relation to the removal of Roma children from their families, a long-standing practice aimed at eradicating Roma culture. While various countries have recognised that this was wrong, the number of Roma children placed in state care remains disproportionately high in many others. During my visits to Romania, Bulgaria and Norway, I found that Roma children often appear to be placed in care on grounds of the socio-economic situation of their family, a practice that is at variance with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.

Moreover, Roma have in many countries been subjected to constant ethnic profiling by the police for alleged purposes of crime prevention, protection of health and safety or migration control. Since the Second World War, the practice of recording Roma in special files has had a particularly negative undertone for the Roma. However, it has often resurfaced. In Italy, for instance, a census of Roma living in camps for so-called “nomads”, which included the taking of fingerprints, was carried out in 2008.  In 2014, the keeping by the police in Southern Sweden of a file with the names of more than 4 000 Roma raised considerable alarm.  Ethnic profiling has also been used to impose undue freedom of movement restrictions on Roma, as highlighted in the Issue Paper I published in 2013 on the right to leave a country.  This document reports exit denials and passport confiscation practices targeting citizens of alleged Roma ethnic origin in some Western Balkan countries in order to prevent them from travelling abroad.

Long-standing practices of police control also have enduring consequences on the legal situation of Roma. During my visit to France, I expressed concerns about the fact that French Travellers were still subjected to exceptional legal arrangements and the obligation to carry an internal travel permit, as a consequence of policies dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. I welcome the ongoing process of legislative reform aimed at eliminating these travel permits and other discriminatory provisions. The persistence in several countries of statelessness among Roma communities also carries disturbing echoes of earlier bans depriving Roma of all rights.

Lastly, it is important to remember that the widespread policies of evictions, expulsions and segregation to which Roma are routinely subjected in many European countries are also a continuation of past policies aimed at getting rid of them or at keeping them under tight control. I raised these major human rights concerns in the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

The way forward

This history of exclusion and persecution of the Roma in Europe, but also their contribution to European history and culture, must be brought to light so as to replace age-old myths and deeply-rooted prejudices with a narrative grounded on sound knowledge and understanding of the past. It is not only a matter of respect and justice, but also an essential tool to combat growing anti-Gypsyism.

Important moves have been made by policy-makers in several member states: in 2015 the Norwegian Prime Minister offered an apology to the Oslo Roma for Second World War policies; and in May 2015, the French President honoured the memory of the Roma detainees of the Struthof concentration camp situated near Strasbourg. Memorials for Roma victims of the Second World War have been erected in various places.  Several German Länder have signed cooperation agreements with the Sinti and Roma community in which the Roma Holocaust is specifically mentioned. The Swiss Government offered apologies to victims who were forcibly placed as children and has recently expressed its readiness to provide them with reparation. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in April 2015 acknowledging “the historical fact of the genocide of Roma that took place during World War II” and proposed to recognise the 2nd of August as the European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, a step already taken by some member states.

The truth and reconciliation commissions recently established in Sweden and Norway could show other countries the way forward for the recognition of historical crimes and help promote reconciliation between communities. The views of the Roma communities themselves on their own history should at long last be heard.

The Council of Europe has elaborated Factsheets on Roma history aimed at improving reflection of Roma history into the wider teaching of European history. They should be used more widely in the educational systems of member states.

The proposed establishment of a European Roma Institute could also contribute to making sure the past is not forgotten and increasing knowledge about history and culture.

As highlighted by Vaclav Havel, the late Czech President, in his 1995 speech at the ceremony of unveiling of a memorial to the Roma victims of the Lety camp, “this is not about a separate history of the Roma. This is the history of all the occupants of this territory, our shared history. It must be identified, understood, and then never forgotten.”

Useful links:

OSCE – Council of Europe website on teaching of the Roma and Sinti Holocaust

Factsheets on Roma history

Council of Europe’s Recommendation on “history teaching in twenty-first century Europe”

ECRI General Policy Recommendations No. 3: Combating racism and intolerance against Roma/Gypsies and No. 13: Combating anti-Gypsyism and racism against Roma.

Right to remember: CoE Handbook for education with young people of the Roma Genocide

Fighting Violence Against Women Must Become A Top Priority


Violence against women remains one of the most widespread human rights violations which takes place every day, and intimate partner violence is still among the major causes of non-accidental death, injury and disability for women. This tragic situation stems from a variety of social, economic and cultural reasons, but a common background condition is glaring inequality between men and women.

On August 1, 2014, the Istanbul Convention, a landmark treaty of the Council of Europe dedicated to preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, went into force, and it could not have come at a better time. The Convention has the potential to become a powerful driver in making progress on this pressing human rights issue of violence against women.

If we look at available data, we can better grasp the urgency of the situation. It is estimated that at least 12 women are killed by gender-related violence in Europe every day. In 2013, available statistics showed that domestic violence claimed the lives of 121 women in France, 134 in Italy, 37 in Portugal, 54 in Spain. In the United Kingdom, between 1 April 2012 and 31 March 2013, 84 women were killed by a partner or ex-partner.

In Azerbaijan, 83 women were killed and 98 committed suicide following cases of domestic violence, while data collected by the media in Turkey reported that at least 214 women were killed by men last year, mainly because of domestic violence and often despite these women having asked the authorities for protection. Available data covering the first six months of 2014 in many European countries continue to show such alarming figures.

A recent UN study indicates that lethal domestic violence accounts for almost 28% of all intentional homicides in Europe. Women are more likely than men to be killed by people close to them: while intimate partner or family-related violence is responsible for 18% of all male homicides, the number rises to 55% when it comes to women.

These rates vary from country to country, but the phenomenon is present across Europe, with 89% of women killed being murdered by a partner or family member in Albania, 80% in Sweden and 74% in Finland. If we look at non-lethal domestic violence, the picture is equally grim: in Ukraine, for example, 160,000 cases of domestic violence were registered in 2013 and a survey showed that 68% of women suffered abuse in the family. In Ireland, in 2012 almost 15,000 cases of domestic violence were registered.

Violence against women is not limited to inter-partner and family relationships, a fact largely recognised by the Istanbul Convention, which also addresses forms of gender-based violence such as stalking, sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape. As shown by a representative survey published last March by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), one in five women (22%) has experienced physical violence by someone other than their partner since the age of 15.

As concerns stalking, which nowadays includes cyber-stalking, in the EU-28, 18% of women have experienced stalking since the age of 15, and 5% of women have experienced it in the 12 months before the survey interview. This corresponds to about 9 million women in the EU-28 experiencing stalking within a period of 12 months. 45% of women in the EU have experienced sexual harassment at least once during their lifetime.

The entry into force of the Istanbul Convention is to be welcomed also because it will contribute to ending forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and forced abortion and sterilisation. Europe is not immune to these forms of violence: in its 2012 Resolution, the European Parliament estimates that around 500,000 women and girls live with female genital mutilation in the European Union while 180,000 others are at risk of being subjected to the practice every year.

However huge, these are only conservative numbers as women tend to underreport cases of violence, mainly because of little trust in law enforcement bodies. This is understandable as all too often state institutions have been unresponsive to those women who find the courage to report. As the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights shows, states not only often fail to protect them, but they also fall short of their obligations to duly investigate cases of gender-based violence, to offer effective remedies and to adopt adequate measures to prevent further violence. An illustration of this failure is a recent case where the French state was ordered by a national court to pay compensation to the family of a young woman killed by her ex-partner because the “wrongful and repeated failure of the gendarmerie (constituted) gross negligence directly and unquestionably linked with the murder”.

This lack of sensitivity to victims among the police is illustrative of states’ neglect of women victims of violence. A recent analytical study carried out by the Council of Europe shows that, although initial vocational training on violence against women is provided to the police in 44 of its 47 member states, only 29 of them offer further specific training to their police officers. This lack of training may well be one of the reasons for the poor record of the police in many countries in dealing with victims of domestic violence.

Reports show that in some cases police officers tried to persuade women not to file a complaint. In other cases, their behaviour showed both contempt for human dignity and their own sense of impunity. A telling example is what happened in the United Kingdom, where two police officers offended in a vulgar manner a 19-year old woman who intended to lodge a complaint for domestic violence. The case prompted public outrage and political condemnation and the officers are currently under investigation. But the damage remains and an unfortunate signal has been sent to women by the police. Moreover, a report shows that the lack of police responsiveness to victims of domestic violence in the UK is far from being confined to this individual case.

This lack of responsiveness is further compounded by inadequate victim support. Places in women’s shelters are largely insufficient and the austerity measures adopted in many countries have further reduced them, thus increasing women’s vulnerability. In Sweden, statistics show that 60% of abused women are denied a place in shelters. In the UK, too, funding cuts risk exposing thousands of victims to new or repeated cases of violence.

Reduced resources also translate into more threats to the health of women who are victims of violence. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned, “violence has a range of adverse physical, including sexual and reproductive health, and mental health outcomes for women and girls”. This evidence-based assessment led the WHO member states to adopt a resolution aimed at strengthening the response of health systems to violence against women last May.

All this evidence points to the need for more resolute state action in combating violence against women and domestic violence from a victim’s perspective. Responding to this need, the Istanbul Convention offers a holistic set of measures to take action where it is needed, and in this sense, it is truly unique. Specifically dedicated to several forms of violence against women, it is victim-centred and contains a comprehensive array of practical tools to help improve the response of all relevant actors.

It clearly states that Parties have an obligation to prevent violence, protect victims and punish the perpetrators, and measures in these regards need to form part of a set of integrated policies. This is crucial, because we can hope to end violence against women only if gender stereotypes and roles are deconstructed, attitudes are changed, laws are amended, women are empowered and justice is within reach. Crucially, the Convention also establishes a specific monitoring mechanism in order to ensure the effective implementation of its provisions by the Parties.

To date, 13 Council of Europe member states have ratified the Istanbul Convention[1]. In addition 23 indicated their political will by signing it, leaving 11 member states with no action on this at all[2]. It is my hope that this important Convention will not only be ratified by all Council of Europe member states, but by many other countries around the world and by the EU.

This will not increase women’s safety overnight, but it would definitely mark a turn in the right direction, giving a strong signal of commitment to millions of women.

[1] Albania, Andorra, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.

[2] Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation.

Protecting Children’s Rights in the Digital World: An Ever-Growing Challenge


Most teenagers spend a substantial share of their time on Internet, often using social media, which have become a major means of socialising. Growing access to the Internet has brought about almost unlimited possibilities for children to access content and exercise their rights, including the right to receive and impart information. However, these benefits go hand in hand with growing risks for children of violations of their rights.

Children’s rights threatened in multiple ways

One important danger relates to the private life of children. Many teenagers use social media to post extensive information and photos of a personal nature, which will remain online for potentially long periods of time. This information can have harmful effects on their lives as it can be used by educational institutions or even potential employers in the future. The profiling of information and retention of data regarding children’s activities on Internet for commercial purposes also raises privacy concerns, to which children are mostly not sensitized.

Children also risk coming into contact with illegal or harmful content, which is increasingly available online, including pornography, but also racist and violent material, and content inciting substance abuse, suicide and other forms of self-harm.

Children can themselves become perpetrators and inflict harm on others through the Internet. Harmful activities include bullying of other children on social media, which is increasingly reported to helplines for children. This can lead to tragic consequences, as illustrated by recent cases where a number of teenagers took their lives after allegedly having been bullied and incited to commit suicide on ask.fm social media. Some children also circulate demeaning images (for instance of a sexual or violent nature) of other children, sometimes after forcing the latter to generate such images themselves.

The Internet is also used by predators to contact children under a false identity with a view to abusing them, including sexually (a practice referred to as “grooming”), and even to recruit them for trafficking purposes.

Identity theft is another danger, which was dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights in 2008 (in KU v. Finland). In this case, an advertisement of a sexual nature was posted on a dating site on behalf of the applicant, a 12 year old boy, without his knowledge. The Court held that, by failing to require the Internet Service Provider (ISP) to provide the identity of the person responsible for posting the ad, the respondent state had violated the boy’s right to respect for his private life.

What should be done?

Responses to these threats require efforts by parents and educators, the authorities of member states as well as private companies such as ISPs. These responses should include a mix of legal and practical measures respectful of the best interests of children and of their right to participate in debates on these issues and to be heard.

Empowering children:

Giving children the tools to protect themselves against threats on the Internet and become more aware of their responsibilities is probably the most effective way of safeguarding children’s rights on the Internet. The right for children to remove their traces on the Internet and to be “forgotten” has been widely advocated. It is of course important that children are able to remedy the consequences of imprudent sharing of personal information, but it is even more important to act preventatively by raising their awareness about potential risks and long-term consequences of sharing personal information on the Internet. Many texts adopted by the Council of Europe and other international organisations over the last decade emphasise the crucial need for empowerment of children through education, including digital literacy. Children should also be able to identify, understand and deal with harmful content. Moreover, they should become more knowledgeable about human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy, but also the rights of others which they need to respect and be careful not to harm.

Educational programmes must target children, including at an early age, but also parents and other educators. More importance should be given to digital literacy in school curricula. Initiatives such as Insafe, a network supported by the European Commission to implement awareness-raising campaigns on e-safety at national level, are of crucial importance. The Council of Europe has also published an Internet Literacy Handbook. Research on children’s vulnerabilities on the net should be further supported in order to increase the effectiveness of education tools.

Creating a safe environment for children on the Internet:

Dealing with the dissemination of harmful and illegal material is a complex task. Deleting illegal material at the source is in practice very difficult because websites hosting such content can be located anywhere in the world, usually outside the scope of European cooperation.

Therefore, other tools are used in various countries to combat the dissemination of illegal material, notably child abuse material, often through blocking lists and filtering. The use of such tools is, however, controversial as it can lead to disproportionate restrictions to freedom of expression, in the absence of a clear legal basis, sufficient transparency and effective safeguards against misuse, including judicial oversight. Indeed, blocking imposed through ISPs has sometimes been extended to sites unrelated to child abuse, such as sites dealing with sexual and reproductive health. Some member states, under the pretext of protecting children, are blocking content related to LGBT issues, even though the European Court of Human Rights found that there is no scientific evidence that such materials have a deleterious impact on the well-being of children.

Moreover, blocking and filtering can detract the authorities from their duty to tackle child abuses as such. Perpetrators of child abuse, including those producing and disseminating illegal content and child abuse material on the Internet, are real persons that must be tracked and sanctioned, in application of international conventions such as the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse and the Convention on Cybercrime. Practices such as “grooming” should therefore be criminalised. Victims of abuses must be identified and rescued. States should also step up action against trafficking of children, in line with guidance provided in the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

It seems more appropriate to use blocking and filtering tools at the level of private and school computers, using parental control, safe spaces for children on Internet and trustmarks and labels allowing for distinction between harmful and non-harmful contents. The German site “Netz für Kinder” is a good example of a website on which children can safely surf, learn and play.

Developing human rights education online:

Despite the existence of risks, Internet offers almost endless possibilities for children to learn, share, create and socialise. Therefore, it is necessary to generate more content aimed at imparting knowledge about human rights, which are attractive and adapted to different age-groups. International human rights institutions have taken initiatives in this respect, such as the UN Cyber School Bus or the UNESCO-ledD@dalos Education Server for Democracy, Peace and Human Rights Education. More needs to be done to prepare generations of active citizens committed to promoting and respecting human rights.

Useful documents

Council of Europe:

  • Convention on Cybercrime and its Additional Protocol concerning the criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems
  • Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Lanzarote Convention)
  • Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation Rec(2006)12 on empowering children in the new information and communications environment
  • Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation CM/Rec(2008)6 on measures to promote the respect for freedom of expression and information with regard to Internet filters
  • Committee of Ministers’ 2008 Declaration on protecting the dignity, security and privacy of children on the Internet
  • Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation CM/Rec(2009)5 on measures to protect children against harmful content and behaviour and to promote their active participation in the new information and communications environment
  • Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation CM/Rec(2014)6 on a Guide to human rights for Internet users
  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 1834 (2011) and Recommendation 1980 (2011) on combating “child abuse images” through committed, transversal and internationally co-ordinated action
  • Internet literacy handbook
  • Online game: “Through the Wild Web Woods”


  • Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography

European Union:

  • European Parliament and Council of the European Union, Directive 2011/92/EU of 13 December 2011on combating sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children, and child pornography
  • Council of the European Union, European strategy for a Better Internet for Children, May 2012
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