My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, on securing this debate. It is especially timely since it is just a day after we celebrated World Children’s Day, when we should be thinking, as he said, about how we ensure that all children have rights, wherever they are and whatever their condition.
I shall focus my remarks today on the implications of displacement for street children. What do I mean by “street children”? They are children who live or work on the streets most of the time, either on their own or with other children or family members. They may live or work on the streets only some of the time, but their time on the streets is important to them. As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said, children can be displaced for a variety of reasons. The appalling scenes of people fleeing conflict with their families are strong in the mind but we need to think of what happens after that, as he said. Any event such as this can cause children to be displaced and on the streets for the whole of their young years and adolescence.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, cited the example of the tsunami but I have in mind that of northern Nigeria, where the Fulani herdsmen are migrating southwards because of desertification and have lost their grazing land. That has caused not only families to move and children to be displaced but some interfaith conflict. There is so much that needs to be resolved.
A frequent reason for children to be displaced is that of the economic demands made by their family—indeed, it can be the result of family breakdown itself. As the noble Lord said, a major cause of the displacement of children is conflict, which can be anywhere, any time. There is conflict such as the internal conflict in South Sudan, where violence has raged for the past five years. Over 1 million people have fled the country—many to Uganda, as the noble Lord said—and 2 million have been internally displaced. I welcome the signing of the peace agreement this summer but so much more needs to be done to make it a reality. The noble Lord was right to point out the duty of the international community to take action, so the UK, as a member of the troika alongside the US and Norway, has a vital role to play in encouraging the parties to observe the peace. So of course do the members of the African Union, and the UN more generally, but in the meantime 72% of children in South Sudan are out of school and girls are more likely to die in childbirth than to complete secondary school.
Wherever children live, they should be treated equally and protected from people and policies that can harm them. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, referred to international laws and he is right to point out that they work only if individual states sign up to them. The major international agreement for children is of course the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is the most universally accepted of all UN human rights instruments and the most comprehensive in its promotion of children’s rights—civil, political, economic, social and cultural—informing other human rights standards through a framework of state responsibilities, applicable to all children within the jurisdiction of those states which have signed up.
To assist in the interpretation of the rights under that convention, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issues general comments from time to time. In June last year, the Committee adopted General Comment No. 21 (2017) on Children in Street Situations. That provided Governments with authoritative guidance on how to ensure that they offer the same human rights protection to children in street situations as they do to any other children within their jurisdiction. It was the first time that children in street situations had ever received this level of recognition, and explicitly recognised as rights holders under the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
The analysis behind the general comment was based not only on what we might call the usual way of doing things, which is to have research and submissions by states, civil society and academia; it was also informed by research collected by the Consortium for Street Children, which worked with member organisations around the world and used a new process of listening to the children themselves and asking them to identify the areas for action. General Comment 21 urges states to develop comprehensive, long-term national strategies on children in street situations, using a holistic child-rights approach. This means that children in street situations should be treated as active agents in their own lives and involved in decision-making. They should not be viewed or treated as merely victims or delinquents.
Last week the AGM of the All-Party Group on Street Children took place. I am one of its co-chairs. We heard from NGOs in several countries about their work with street children. They emphasised the importance of the support provided by DfID for NGOs working in the field and how much the UK commitment to 0.7% was welcomed and respected. I appreciate that DfID profiles set out how its country programmes contribute to delivering the UK aid strategy. Will the Minister say how DfID takes account of the importance of targeting the needs of street-connected children in drafting those profiles? There was also a general welcome for UK government support in protecting children worldwide, whether the country qualifies for official development assistance or not.
The work of DfID and the FCO can, and should, play a strong leadership role in promoting children’s rights around the world. I would like to give a flavour of three of the presentations we heard from NGOs last week and ask the Minister to respond to a question related to each country. Alfred Ochaya is the director of the NGO SALVE in Uganda. SALVE stands for “support and love via education”. He and his colleagues work to help children gain access to education and stop living on the streets. One often hears about discrimination against street children, one aspect of which takes place in education. Often, street children are offered places at schools so far from where they spend their time that it is impossible to take up that place. SALVE tries to help them have an education. Alfred spoke in particular about the damaging effect on street-connected children of the way in which the “idle and disorderly” law is applied in Uganda. Have the Government had discussions with the Ugandan Government about reform of this law and its punitive application to street-connected children?
Catherine Scerri is deputy director of Bahay Tuluyan, an NGO in the Philippines that provides a variety of programmes aimed at preventing and responding to the abuse and exploitation of children. She spoke about how the pendulum is now swinging from protection to repression as a consequence of the President of the Philippines’ methods of addressing gang violence and drug trafficking. Have the UK Government had discussions with the Government of the Philippines on the importance of not stigmatising street-connected children and not condoning violence against them?
The third country is India. Sanjay Gupta is the director and founder of CHETNA, an NGO that works for the empowerment of street and working children in Delhi and neighbouring states. It engages in training authorities to protect street children and in empowering the children to advocate for themselves. Although it is not possible to know the exact number of street children in India, a quarter of a century ago UNICEF estimated that it was 11 million. More recently it has been estimated at 14 million, and even that is expected to be a wild underestimate. I am aware that since 2015 DfID has not given traditional aid to India, instead providing world-leading expertise and private investments aimed at boosting prosperity, creating jobs and opening up markets for UK businesses. How does DfID take account of the importance of targeting the needs of street-connected children in determining how UK aid will be allocated in India?
Last week, the Foreign Secretary gave oral evidence to the International Relations Select Committee of this House. It was a contribution to our current report on UK foreign policy in changed world conditions. It is a world where the international rules-based system is increasingly being undermined. The Foreign Secretary’s evidence is publicly available online on the House of Lords website. I was pleased to hear him say:
“We believe very strongly in the rules-based international order and in multilateral institutions”.
He went on to say that the UK has the ability to shape the,
“world order—not to control it but to shape it”,
“Because we are the country that, alongside the United States, was largely responsible for the current world order, I think people will be looking at us and asking what we are going to do to protect the values that all of us here believe in so strongly”.
I believe he is right. It is essential that in working to shape the world order in such difficult times and to protect the values we espouse, we should do all we can to ensure that children displaced from their homes internationally have their rights observed and supported.