Cross-border child protection in the EU

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A significant number of European Union laws and policies have a direct role in protecting and promoting children’s rights. What has the EU achieved in the area of cross-border child protection?

An image showing a child in a thumbs up pose
(Image: Anthony Kelly, under Creative Commons)

Child protection can be defined in human rights terms as the child’s right to be free from all forms of violence. Violence against children can encompass many forms of exploitation such as sexual abuse, child pornography and grooming, forced labour and child trafficking. Both migration to the EU and mobility within the EU have led to increasing numbers of transnational and cross-border child protection situations. These require cooperation and coordination with counterparts in other countries.

The child’s right to freedom from all forms of violence is part of international human rights law. The EU has a longstanding tradition of promoting human rights. It has the legal authority to enact legal measures and has also supported and assisted Member States, providing a range of financial programmes to further the protection of children. This has resulted in research and innovation, capacity-building, policy papers, best practice guidance, and fostered dialogue throughout the EU on cross-border and transnational cooperation and exchange of expertise.

The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrines the basic rights that must be respected both by the European Union and the Member States when implementing EU law. This includes the protection of children’s rights. It is a legally binding instrument that was drawn up in order to expressly recognise, and give visibility to, the role of fundamental rights in the legal order of the Union.

The Lisbon Treaty increased the scope of the EU to advance children’s rights and the protection of the rights of the child became an EU general objective. This led to the adoption of ‘Directives’ on combating various aspects of child exploitation.

  • Anti-Trafficking Directive (2011/36/EU). This Directive obliges Member States to support persons as soon as there are reasonable grounds indicating that they might have been subjected to human trafficking. It also obliges Member States to establish early identification and assistance mechanisms for this purpose in cooperation with relevant support organisations. Special safeguards exist for possible child victims.
  • Directive on combatting the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography (2011/93/EU). This Directive considerably improved requirements to support child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, requiring Member States to provide assistance, support and protection taking into account the best interests of the child.

Dating from 1994, the Young Workers Directive (94/33/EC) is the main EU legal instrument prohibiting child labour. Young people admitted to work must have working conditions appropriate to their age and be protected from economic exploitation and any work likely to harm their safety, health or physical, mental, moral or social development or to interfere with their education.

Legal expert Professor Helen Stafford of the University of Liverpool considers that the EU regulatory framework has provided ‘…a much-needed, co-ordinated response’ to the complex transnational problem of child protection (although she notes that in practice, implementation at national level can be a lengthy process and is subject to national interpretation). In her view however, the EU child protection Directives have been extremely important for integrating many piece-meal requirements and in imposing legal obligations which can be enforced at the domestic level. A key strength of EU child protection provision is not just the content of the measures themselves, but the accompanying accountability mechanisms.

The EU has also introduced a raft of ‘non-legislative measures’ for tackling child abuse and sexual exploitation and these have also proved to be effective according to Professor Stafford. They are an important source of support for Member States and include:

  • EUROPOL’S European Cybercrime Centre set up in 2013 to strengthen the law enforcement response to cybercrime in the EU and help protect European citizens, businesses and governments from online crime.
  • The European Commission’s Strategy for a Better Internet for Children brings together the European Commission and Member States with mobile phone operators, handset manufacturers and providers of social networking services and aims to help children acquire the digital skills to benefit safely from use of the internet.
  • The European Framework for Safer Mobile Use by Younger Teenagers and Children was set up to help ensure that children can safely access content on their mobile phones. Codes of conduct on safer mobile use have been put in place by mobile phone operators in 27 EU Member States.
  • The EU also supports a range of initiatives involved in the cross-national gathering and exchange of information. Eurojust, is the EU’s judicial cooperation unit. Its mission (defined in the Lisbon Treaty) is to support and strengthen coordination and cooperation between national investigating and prosecuting authorities in relation to serious crime affecting two or more Member States.
  • The Daphne Programme, established by the European Parliament and the Council, since 2000 has funded a range of child protection activities. The focus of the current (Daphne III) programme is on assisting and encouraging NGOs and other organisations active in child protection, awareness raising, knowledge exchange and good practice guidance, support programmes for victims and children at risk and intervention programmes for perpetrators.

The EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s most recent annual report says that child protection remains a central issue for the EU, including protection in the digital world. Despite Member State efforts, violence against children remains largely undetected and under-reported. Effective child protection will continue to require interagency coordination, an integrated approach and cooperation between various actors.