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The International Social Service – in the highest interests of children!
Meeting Olivier Geissler, Executive Director of the International Social Service – Switzerland (ISS), is an eye-opener on the issue of children’s rights, migrants and non-migrants in Switzerland and about the system in which they are taken into.
After starting his professional life in the banking sector, Olivier Geissler realised his real vocation is fighting for durable solutions for the protection of children and vulnerable people.
The ISS deals with so many issues that it is difficult to detail all their . We will focus on the success of its core mission: human rights and, above all, the rights of children and migrants.
The values and missions of the ISS
Impartiality, non-discrimination and solidarity among human beings are the foundations of the ISS’s ethics. ISS acts in the best interests of the child as defined by the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
ISS’s main missions are to ensure the rights of children in international contexts and support individuals and families. It deals with three areas:
- Unaccompanied minors (UMs)
- Transnational Services for children and their families
- Support to migrants, refugees and the diasporas.
Among them, we spoke with Geissler on dealing with interfamilial child abduction, and mediation and international protection of unaccompanied minors.
Transnational Services for children and their families: International mediation as the way to resolve bi-national conflicts
The Transnational Services is responsible of the management of specific cases, i.e. situations where people are in difficulty. The goal is to protect the children and adults crossing borders. These situations are therefore always binational.
Cases include children abducted abroad by one of the parents; parents who do not respect the agreements, especially the right of visiting; adopted children looking for the family of origin, and unprotected children in a foreign country.
The biggest issue is the abduction of children in binational couples, Swiss and foreign couples generally. Social workers and mediators work to find a solution by putting the rights of the child in the middle of the issue. Often these situations can be very complex, especially in countries that have not ratified the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. ISS Switzerland’s mandate comes from the Swiss child and adult welfare authority, courts, social services, other social organisations, or directly from the people concerned.
Different cultural or religious practices make it particularly difficult to find a shared solution. But thanks to their skills, intercultural sensitivity and understanding, ISS mediators try to find appropriate solutions for families. International family mediation is a valuable and effective tool for resolving disputes and preventing child abductions.
In any case, mediation is a flexible procedure aimed at resolving conflicts. This is a flexible conflict management method complementary to the legal procedures, and makes it possible to find more durable solutions because they are the result of a voluntary procedure and listening to the other.
Additionally, creating dialogue between parents is necessary to create a family system that is favourable to the child’s development.
The protection and support of unaccompanied minors (UMs) in Switzerland: Sustainable Solutions
As early as 1996, the Official Youth Foundation (OYF) mandated the ISS to assist unaccompanied minors (UMs) applying for asylum in Geneva. From that point the service for the UMs took more and more importance in the work of ISS Switzerland.
Who are the UMs? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) definition, an unaccompanied child is a person under 18 years of age who is separated from both parents and is not cared for by a responsible adult.
Of those entering Switzerland, a third are less than 15 years old. These young migrants in Switzerland require particular attention in terms of assistance, support and solutions for their future.
In 2016, a specialized sector was created to be more strategic in relation to this issue and to better position itself in relation to the authorities. Several ways have been developed to help the cantons to take better care of these UMs. The accompaniment, the training of the professionals, the development of tools so that the cantons can better take care of these minors are the daily challenges of the ISS.
For example, the ISS has created standards on these issues and a common methodology for the Swiss cantons.
SSI Switzerland has created a Mapping of the Swiss cantons to harmonize the 26 cantons and a Handbook for the care of unaccompanied minors in Switzerland. Unfortunately, there is no central structure dealing with children’s rights. The responsibility is in the hands of the cantons. SSI deals with all cantons and seeks to lobby and advocate (promotion) at the level of central migration structures.
The significant reduction in arrivals of migrants in Europe should be an ideal time to find lasting solutions and future prospects for children. It must be used to make changes and qualitative work. In reality, today, the question is no longer a priority and many authorities are reluctant to invest further in the quality support.
“We must invest now in a young person if we want to find sustainable solutions to give him or her a future “
For Geissler, the goal of the ISS is to protect children beyond emergencies, and to stabilize children in the long term. Children must be physically and psychologically cared for, but for their well-being, qualitative procedures must be implemented to integrate them, to give them instruction and new hope in life.
Compared to the strict Swiss policy on migrants, the ISS seeks to make the central government more aware of a child-centred approach. Less migration, more children’s rights. Migrant children are first and foremost children, and as such they have the right to privileged protection.
According to Olivier Geissler:
“We must wear the eyeglasses “children’s rights” and not the eyeglasses “migrants“
How ISS Switzerland works with UMs
Beyond the harmonization of care standards in the Swiss cantons, the ISS works primarily and directly with these minors. It gives individual help, but also integration with the help of several accompanying measures. In addition, those wishing to return to their own country of origin can count on the support of the ISS international network to find qualitative and sustainable individual solutions.
The ISS is dedicated to everything that is social relationships. Thanks to its “1 set de + à table” project, a complementary social mentoring resource has been designed to be closer to young people. A sponsor of the resident society becomes the reference person, takes care of minors by creating a space of listening, relationship and life in society.
The Scholarship / Support Fund Service enables young people to continue education or apprenticeship at the end of compulsory schooling to acquire skills that enable them to build an independent life in their country of origin or in Switzerland.
The Canton of Geneva gave the mandate of the legal assistance of the UMS to the ISS. A lawyer specializing in the rights of migrant children deals with, among other things, court appeals and family search.
UMs and West Africa Network: Help at home
The ISS Switzerland is equally active at the international level to act and advocate for migrant children. It initiated the West Africa Network for the Protection of Children (WAN). The main mission of the WAN is the transnational protection and social, educational and vocational reintegration of vulnerable children and young migrants moving between the countries of this region. This is where most children on the move are, and not necessarily in Europe. With the collaboration of the services of the African states, the region and the NGOs present on the ground, it has created a mechanism of collaboration to take care of these children in the 16 countries concerned. It is also supported by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission as part of their regional child protection strategy.
Approximately 1500 children a year are supported by the WAN programs. (up to now around 10’000 totally).
All actors participating are committed to the same steps. For example, it is necessary to identify, protect and reintegrate children in vulnerable situations and young migrants in their country of origin or in a third country. It is also necessary to check the state of the family and whether reintegration into the family is possible.
The network strives to understand what drives young people to leave and to find personalized solutions
The two offices of the ISS in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and Dakar, Senegal, ensure the coordination and supports the partners with the operations and to organize themselves.
ISS in development: future challenges
In December 2018 in Marrakech, Geissler participated at the adoption of the Global Compact on Migration of the UN and at the annual Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). He had the opportunity to stress the importance of viewing refugee and migrant children as children first and foremost.
In addition, as the system is rethinking how to look at mobility, it is necessary to understand that the current emergency should not persist for so long. We live in a world where mobility is global, but the answer remains national. The asylum reform is the challenge in 2019, and the organisation is considering advocating for the creation of federal procedures to make procedures more respectful for the rights of the children.
A new theme to come is International surrogacy and artificial reproductive technologies. ISS is working on what the ethics when it comes to children’s rights at the age of biotechnology.
The International Social Service in Geneva in brief
ISS Switzerland is the Swiss branch of the international network of the ISS. This network has existed since 1924, the time of European emigration to America following the economic depression. The International Assistance Service for Migrants, as it was called then, was created to interface between the countries of origin and the countries of migration, and to make the link between the social services of the different countries. He assisted migrant families in administrative procedures, the restoration of family ties and settlement in a different country.
In 2017, SSI Switzerland celebrated 85 years of activity and what better opportunity this year to make itself known for the 20th anniversary of Switzerland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Legally recognized as an international non-governmental organization, it can count on a network of partners in more than 120 countries. SSI works indifferently with NGOs or with state structures, normally the Ministries of Social Affairs and Child Protection. The important thing for the SSI is to always work on concrete, complex and individual situations.
The team consists of social workers, mediators, lawyers, experts in children’s rights, development specialists and international relations.
SSI – Rapport annuel 2018
Photo: SSI Switzerland