27 November 2017 - Brussels

Is it ever ok to coerce six-year olds to get their fingerprints?

This week EU Institutions will discuss proposals to use coercion to obtain fingerprints from children as young as six.

Imagine, you’re six years-old. At school, you are learning to write more than just your name. You may be slightly obsessed with dinosaurs, or unicorns. You climb trees with your friends and siblings. When you get home, you may watch cartoons, daydream about sweets and toys. You may be scared of monsters, or of your beloved grandmother dying.

Imagine, then, if war breaks out. Violence erupts and some of your friends start to leave. Others get wounded or die. Your parents decide to leave too. You need to grow up fast. You’re scared. You hear the noises of war, and they startle you every time. After crossing multiple borders, you get shoved into a boat. It’s the first time you see the sea, but it’s not as nice as you had imagined. There are lots of people on that boat and you’re crammed in between them. The boat starts to sink, people shout, you don’t know how to swim. You are terrified. Finally, a rescue ship arrives. You get dragged onto the shore.

You laugh, your parents laugh, you reached Europe. What a relief! No more violence.

Not today. Not in this Europe.

This week, representatives from the European Commission, Parliament and Council will be discussing the EURODAC proposal, which arranges registration and identification of people arriving in Europe. This includes collecting fingerprints and facial images.

The proposal would lower the age of children who need to be fingerprinted from 14 to six years old. Up for debate is also whether vulnerable refugee and migrant children should be coerced into having their fingerprints taken.

The registration of young children is being presented as a way to protect them from disappearing and ending up in the hands of smugglers. Save the Children, in principle, welcomes all moves to help children... But we simply cannot accept a proposal where the use of coercion – applying physical or psychological intimidation - against young child is even being considered.

For now, it is not clear how far authorities would go to make children give their fingerprints or other details. But it is undeniable that licensing coercion, leaves space for the mistreatment of children to escalate.

Would these proposals mean that officials could grip the wrist of a child who refuses and force their finger into the ink? Or that they intimidate children to ensure they sit still while their photos are taken?

The scenes across the Balkans – where our teams have worked with children who have been forcibly and in some cases violently pushed back– should act as a warning that children are extremely vulnerable.

Imagine again that you are that child. You arrive in a completely unknown place. You’re confused, you don’t understand what people are saying. Your parents, who usually have all the answers, are confused too. You’re brought to a place surrounded by strangers, with barbed wire and checkpoints. Then you are taken into a room. You start crying. You don’t understand what they are doing to you, or what will happen after they take your fingerprints. You wonder whether you are to blame.

There is nothing wrong with registering children. But there must be transparent and less harmful ways to do this: receive people properly, build trust, engage with them and explain the procedure in a language they know. Explain that they won’t go to prison, tell them they have rights. For unaccompanied children, ensure they have a guardian present.

Establishing an enabling environment goes a long way in getting people to cooperate. Creating a legal infrastructure that treats innocent people as if they’re criminals affects the way governments engage with them and it will affect the way the public looks at them. 

Somewhere along the road of this migration debate, we have lost a basic sense of human decency. Now this is threatening to spill into our laws. On Wednesday, lawmakers in Brussels will discuss whether to allow the coercion of children. We should all know better than to let this happen, let’s hope that our representatives do too.

We stand side by side with children in the world's toughest places.