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Conflict of interest in handling of unaccompanied minors, CoE says

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A conflict of interest adversely affects the human rights of unaccompanied minor children (UMC) in Cyprus, Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights, warned on Thursday.

In an open letter to Attorney-general Costas Clerides he said the social welfare office is the adviser for UMCs but also represents them in court services such as with the examination of asylum applications.

“This practice raises a serious issue of independence and impartiality of legal assistance and representation, especially in cases where UMC seek judicial review of decisions issued by state services such as the Asylum Service or the Refugee Reviewing Authority,” the commissioner wrote.

There is now the possibility for the children to be represented before courts by the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, a positive development, he went on to say, but this concerns only proceedings excluding non-judicial asylum proceedings.

In addition, the decision whether or not to involve the commissioner is taken by the Social Welfare Services who provide guardianship and legal representation of the UMCs. “In fact, Social Welfare Services lack the necessary expertise for providing proper legal advice,” Muižnieks added.

In conclusion, the commissioner asked Clerides for information about the measures he plans to take in order to avoid such situations of conflict of interest.

The attorney general’s office could not be reached for a comment. NGO Hope for Children, whose children’s shelter houses UMCs and who operate under the supervision and with the close cooperation of the social welfare services and the labour ministry, commented that it is in the best interest of the children that their guardianship and legal representation are in separate hands.

The letter came following a visit by Muižnieks and his delegation. In the course of his visit the commissioner held discussions with authorities, human rights structures, international organisations and representatives of civil society.

As a result of the visit, the commission published a wide-ranging report on Cyprus in April 2016 which showed that while there has recently been some improvement in Cyprus’ human rights record, a lot still needs to be done.

The number of UMCs seeking asylum has almost doubled between 2014 and 2015, from 54 to 105, while there were more than 100 in the first half of 2016.

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