I’ve been living in a hallway for over a year. Asylum seeker, 15, Germany.

Using the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action in Germany

“The first time I visited a camp in Hamburg, I was surprised,” said Pia Schmalhaus, Child Protection in Emergencies Specialist at Plan International Germany. “Over 500 people – families and single individuals – -were housed in an old electronics factory. It was a big, open space with high ceilings and almost no windows. Residents had done what they could for privacy, building their own mini-compartments between bunk beds, fencing off the two square metres between beds with sheets and pieces of cardboard.”

“My work takes me to all kinds of humanitarian settings worldwide: conflict zones, natural disasters and epidemics” said Anita Queirazza, Child Protection Advisor at Plan International. “When I arrived in Germany to conduct an initial child protection assessment in November 2015, it was clear that these were exceptional circumstances. We were in the centre of a major European city, but the provision for refugees and migrants fell far short of the Child Protection Minimum Standards – the baseline standards for child protection programming in humanitarian action that Plan and other agencies strive to meet wherever we work.”

“We [Plan staff, camp operators and volunteers] sat down with the CPMS manual and drew up a project plan for contextualization,” said Anita. “Standard by standard, we went through and developed a mainstreaming checklist. The aim was to analyze all aspects of life in the shelter through a child protection lens, asking where the dangers were and what we could improve.”

“Some of our local partners initially questioned why we wanted to use standards designed for humanitarian settings in the German context,” added Pia. “But they soon saw the value of the CPMS. The reality is that no other set of standards provides such a thorough and systematic approach to addressing child protection concerns.”

As part of the initial assessment, Plan’s team of staff and volunteers conducted a “risk mapping” exercise with children and youth. “It was very revealing,” said Pia. “Almost all children — girls and boys – drew the route to the wash facilities in red, signifying “danger”. When we returned at night, it was clear why! The wash facilities were located behind the warehouse where everyone was sleeping, down a long and badly lit path. Young men were hanging around in the shadows, smoking shisha and chatting. No female guards were employed at night, only during the day, meaning that there was no one to accompany girls and women to the toilets. The men were not necessarily threatening, but it was intimidating nonetheless. Teenage girls and pregnant women told us they were suffering from health issues because they were scared to use the bathroom at night.”

“Children and youth marked the tiny space between or under bunk beds as “my home”, explaining that this was where they spent a large proportion of their day. Beds were also marked in red, as places where many accidents happen, especially when younger children had to sleep on top beds without barriers” said Pia.

“The systematic use of the CPMS sparked a gradual change in attitude among the service providers in the shelter” observed Anita. “At the outset, there was a general assumption that migrants and refugees were passive beneficiaries. Managers and guards generally had little or no experience in humanitarian settings. The manager of the Hamburg shelter was a former nightclub owner, and most of the staff had previously worked in residential homes for old people. In the immediacy of the migrant crisis, the camp was set up to meet basic and universal human needs — food, shelter, wash facilities (…) Little attempt was made to consult residents, especially children and youth, to understand their needs, ideas and preferences, and – crucially — to engage them in the decisions that affect their daily lives (…) So we went around the camp, CPMS manuals in our hands, systematically reviewing the various services from a child protection perspective. Our aim was to take a child protection-oriented view of each area of work.”

“Teenage girls told us they were scared to sleep on the top bunks, and that they had nowhere to change their clothes. They said they could never relax: they were used to taking their headscarves off at night but they felt that they were permanently in a public space” said Pia. “Children, youth and mothers told us they really felt the lack of a social space in the camp: a place to chat, dance or just relax. Young mothers told us they couldn’t let their small children crawl on the floor or explore because of concerns about hygiene and sharp objects. Over the course of a year, this has serious implications for child development.”

“At the beginning, the quality and variety of the food provided by external companies was a real problem (…) both from a nutritional perspective, with all the implications that a poor diet carries for children’s physical and psychological development, but also from a social perspective. Mothers and youth told us they really missed choosing and preparing their own food, that it was an essential component of their identities and roles as caregivers” said Anita. “Nothing was provided for smaller children: no formula milk if mothers were absent or unable to breastfeed, and no purées or compotes for babies who were being weaned” added Pia. “Because I was visiting the shelter in Hamburg regularly, I saw the cumulative impact of these dietary choices over a few months (…) there was a pregnant woman who lost so much weight that she had to be admitted to hospital for emergency treatment – the combination of bad food, stress and morning sickness.”

“Fire, safety and hygiene regulations meant that it was impossible to allow all the residents in the shelter to prepare and cook their own food. But drawing on our CPMS-inspired mainstreaming checklist, we persuaded the catering companies to invite a small group of women and teenage girls to join them in preparing food for a day. The idea was that the girls and women could show the caterers some of their traditional recipes, to better understand their habits and help the refugees and migrants reestablish their routines in the German context,” said Pia. “It was a simple and yet profoundly helpful way of building bridges between the service providers and the residents, and I think it encouraged the staff to rethink some of their assumptions”.

“It’s also important to note the significant differences between the German context and a ‘typical’ humanitarian setting,” observed Anita. “I realized that international humanitarian teams often have a greater degree of autonomy when working in refugee camps because camp management is on site and practical decisions are usually made by UNHCR. But when we proposed changes to the camp set-up in Hamburg, when – for example – we wanted to extend the area of the child friendly space, or create a dedicated social space for women with young children, it was really very complicated. All decisions had to pass through Berlin, requiring months of waiting and negotiation.”

“Plan’s informal discussions with children and families revealed unreported protection issues, including cases of neglect and domestic violence” said Pia. “Refugees and migrants simply didn’t know how to report child protection cases in Germany, and they were worried about consequences when they did so. We realized that we needed to set up and communicate clear procedures for preventing and responding to child protection cases, and to raise awareness on child protection risks in the camp,” said Pia.

In early 2016, Save the Children, Plan International and UNICEF collaborated with the German government’s Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens and Youth to implement child protection plans for Central Reception Centres. “From Plan’s perspective, it seemed logical to join forces with Save the Children and UNICEF and make this an interagency project. After all, that’s how we work in other humanitarian settings around the world.”

The interagency group also developed the Minimum Standards for the Protection of Children, Young People and Women in Refugee camps. These standards are largely based on the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action.

The project started with a visit from the German State Secretary to Plan Germany’s National Office in early 2016. He heard that we wanted to support the refugee camps in Hamburg and was keen to support this work. With the massive influx of migrants, the German government was seeking support from civil society.

“Children who experienced the breakdown of everything that’s familiar to them and of all structures need special protection”, said Maike Röttger, National Director of Plan International Germany. “At the global level, we are committed to implementing the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action (…) We are pleased to contribute our global expertise in the field of humanitarian assistance also to the German context and to the cooperation of the Ministry for Family Affairs with UNICEF, Save the Children and other partners.”

In March 2016, Plan International and partners initiated a pilot project in cooperation with other implementing partners in Hamburg. The programme, entitled “Strengthening a child-friendly environment and ensuring child protection in refugee accommodations in Hamburg”, was supported by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

“The project aims to create a protective environment for refugee and migrant children in camps in Hamburg” explained Pia. “The concept rests on three pillars: Safe Spaces: Protected spaces and psychosocial support for child refugees to help them cope with what they have experienced; Case Management: The elaboration of procedures defining how to deal with child protection cases inside the camps, based on existing case management processes and services; and Advocacy with Refugees: Making the voices of young people heard so that they can communicate and discuss about the things that they have experienced and about the topics which are relevant to them.”

UNICEF drafted six national child protection standards, with considerable input from civil society. “From our side, the CPMS were a core reference document. We consulted the Standards at every step of the drafting process and really used them to structure the Standards (…) We also consulted the UNCRC and relevant national and federal law” said Pia.

Once the national child protection standards were finalized, Germany’s federal system meant that responsibility fell to each state to draft and implement its own protection policies. “It is mandatory for each camp to have its own protection policy, but this is often just on paper. There is still no clear way to enforce it, and no established complaints mechanism,” said Pia.

“We successfully lobbied the Hamburg government to designate an independent person to receive complaints, the equivalent of an ombudsman. We also advocate for the use of participatory monitoring, arguing that beneficiaries’ perspectives should be included in project monitoring plans. This may seem like “common sense”, but it is far from established! Today, children and youth are specifically mentioned in national minimum standards, but there is considerable scope for improvement. From Plan’s perspective it’s not enough to say, “Include children and youth in monitoring”. We need to carefully think through how exactly this should happen, what techniques we can use to engage children and ensure that their participation is meaningful rather than simply tokenistic, in line with Article 12 of the UNCRC. The same goes for standards like “Set up a Child Friendly Space”. What does a child friendly space look like? How does an agency set it up, staff it, and monitor its effectiveness?”

“An important component of this project has been advocacy. Advocacy with child refugees and migrants, not only on their behalf. And that starts with really listening to children and families (…) Setting up functioning communications, complaints and referral mechanisms to ensure that children and youth are heard and empowered to participate in the decisions affecting their lives.”

“Language barriers and information-sharing problems are massive issues in the camps. Here in Hamburg, for example, at least 14 different languages are spoken. We can usually get hold of someone to translate the more widely spoken languages, like Arabic or Farsi. But others – Tigrinya or Kurmanji, for example — are more tricky. Minority groups end up losing out on essential information. They don’t understand the asylum process, the forms they need to fill in and how to go about it. Often, security staff are used as translators, which is obviously far from ideal as confidentiality is an issue. Asylum seekers tell us they feel they’re being treated unfairly, based on language. In order to get a doctor’s appointment, for example, you need a referral. So it helps if you know the staff at the reception centre who speak your language” said Pia.

The Standards were launched in June 2016. “There was a big press conference and everyone was proud that we had them,” said Pia. Largely based on the CPMS, the Standards include a strict code of conduct for shelter staff and volunteers, as well as training on violence recognition and prevention. “The Standards have been incorporated into some of the newer contracts between shelter operators and local authorities. But despite serious government engagement and strenuous advocacy from Plan, Save the Children and UNICEF, the Standards were not included in the national asylum law. This means that they are still “Guidelines”: soft law or advice rather than hard law that must be adhered to. We are now advocating for their inclusion in the upcoming revision of the national asylum law (Q4 2017)” explained Pia.

Case study researched and written by Helen Kearney, Advocacy and Communications Advisor. Thanks to Plan International, especially Anita Queirazza and Pia Schmalhaus.