- Vulnerability of children in flight
- To flee from one’s home is to experience a deep sense of loss, and the decision to flee is not taken lightly. Those who make this decision do so because they are in danger of being killed, tortured, forcibly recruited, raped, abducted or starved, among other reasons. They leave behind them assets and property, relatives, friends, familiar surroundings and established social networks. Although the decision to leave is normally taken by adults, even the youngest children recognize what is happening and can sense their parents’ uncertainty and fear.
- During flight from the dangers of conflict, families and children continue to be exposed to multiple physical dangers. They are threatened by sudden attacks, shelling, snipers and landmines, and must often walk for days with only limited quantities of water and food. Under such circumstances, children become acutely undernourished and prone to illness, and they are the first to die. Girls in flight are even more vulnerable than usual to sexual abuse. Children forced to flee on their own to ensure their survival are also at heightened risk. Many abandon home to avoid forced recruitment, only to find that being in flight still places them at risk of recruitment, especially if they have no documentation and travel without their families.
- Unaccompanied children
- Unaccompanied children are those who are separated from both parents and are not in the care of another adult who, by law or custom, has taken responsibility to do so. 16/ Children are often separated from parents in the chaos of conflict, escape and displacement. Parents or other primary caregivers are the major source of a child’s emotional and physical security and for this reason family separation can have a devastating social and psychological impact. Unaccompanied children are especially vulnerable and at risk of neglect, violence, military recruitment, sexual assault and other abuses. An essential goal of relief programmes must be to provide assistance to families to prevent separations.
- The first priority of relief programmes is to identify a child as unaccompanied and to ensure their survival and protection. The next priorities are documenting, tracing and – whenever possible – reunifying families. Most unaccompanied children are not orphans and, even when both parents are dead, often have relatives, bound by custom and tradition, who are willing and able to care for them. In all cases, it is essential to keep siblings together. In the Great Lakes region of Africa, a vast tracing programme was set up in 1994 by ICRC, IFRC and their National Societies,
UNHCR, UNICEF, the Save the Children Fund and other NGOs. More than 100,000 children were registered as unaccompanied, both inside and outside their countries of origin. According to UNHCR, by May 1996, more than 33,000 of these children had been reunited with family members. This positive outcome resulted largely because identification and tracing activities were implemented from the outset of the emergency, and because agencies had committed themselves to cooperate together. Many traditional and non-traditional tracing methods were used, including photo tracing programmes.
- While families are sought, procedures must be set up to prevent further separation and to provide each unaccompanied child with continuous alternative care. Alternative care is most appropriately found with the extended family, but when this is not possible, it can come from neighbours, friends or other substitute families. Nevertheless these arrangements need careful supervision. Many foster families take excellent care of a child, but where economic and social situations have been undermined by war, children may be at risk of exploitation. The situation of a child in a foster family should therefore always be closely monitored through a community-based system. Initiatives of this kind in the Great Lakes region have produced positive results. These programmes have resulted in closing down unaccompanied children’s centres and returning children into the refugee community, combining family mediation and projects to support vulnerable families, enabling them to keep their children.
- Centres for unaccompanied children, such as orphanages or other institutions, cannot fully meet the emotional and developmental needs of children. And there is always the risk that temporary centres may become permanent. The creation of centres may also in itself generate higher numbers of unaccompanied children. During her visit to the Great Lakes region, the expert was deeply concerned that, as a result of media attention, many centres had been created as a way of profiting from humanitarian aid. Such centres may be attractive to parents who are having difficulty feeding their families and who might easily think it best to leave their children where they will be provided with food and health care. This underlines the need to prevent family separation by ensuring that vulnerable families are supported in caring for their children.
- In response to the many protection and care problems facing unaccompanied children, UNICEF and UNHCR, in consultation with ICRC, IFRC and their National Societies and some specialized NGOs, have jointly developed an emergency kit to facilitate coordination and to enhance the quality of response to the needs of unaccompanied children. The tools included in the kit, such as registration forms and Polaroid cameras, are derived from experiences gained from earlier emergencies. The kit also comes with guidelines on the protection and care of unaccompanied children, and it is essential that these are widely disseminated among and followed by relief workers.
- At the height of a conflict, tracing is particularly difficult.
Precisely because that is the case, unaccompanied children should not be considered available for adoption. Adoption severs family links permanently and should not be considered unless all family tracing efforts have been exhausted. This principle is safeguarded by a recommendation adopted in the Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect of Inter-country Adoption signed at The Hague on 29 May 1994.
- Parents living in zones of armed conflict can become so concerned for the safety of their children that they decide to evacuate them, sending them to friends or relatives or having them join large-scale programmes. To parents, evacuation may appear at the time to be the best solution, but this is frequently not the case. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, evacuations were often hastily organized with little documentation.
Evacuation also poses a long-term risk to children, including the trauma of separation from the family and the increased danger of trafficking or of illegal adoption. On her visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the expert was concerned to learn that some evacuations had been organized by groups intent on exploiting adoption markets. In the case of medical evacuations, difficulties often arise when the foster family, thinking the child will have better opportunities in the host country, does not want to allow the child in their care to return to the original family.
- As is stressed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, with articles 9 and 10 regarding family unity being of particular note, all such decisions must be based on the best interests of the child and take her or his opinions into account. If evacuation is essential, whole families should move together, and if this is not possible, children should at least move with their primary care-givers and siblings. Great care should also be taken to ensure that any evacuation is properly documented, and that arrangements are made for the effective reception and care for children and for maintaining contact with other family members, as well as for early reunification. Guidelines on these criteria are supported by UNHCR, UNICEF, ICRC, IFRC and their National Societies. Evacuations are sometimes essential, as international agencies concluded in the Great Lakes region when orphanages were being targeted for purposes of ethnic cleansing. In 1992, UNHCR/UNICEF issued a publication on considerations and guidelines on evacuation of children from conflict areas. These require wide dissemination.
- Children in camps
- Ideally, camps for refugees or the internally displaced should be places of safety, offering protection and assistance. However, displaced populations are complex societies that often reproduce former divisions and power struggles. At the same time their traditional systems of social protection come under strain or break down completely and there are often high levels of violence, alcohol and substance abuse, family quarrels and sexual assault. Women and adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable and even the youngest children can be affected when they witness an attack on a mother or a sister. The UNHCR guidelines on sexual violence against refugees outline practical protection measures such as careful lighting, arrangement of latrines and the organizing of people into groups for tasks such as gathering firewood. 18/ These and the UNHCR guidelines on the protection and care of refugee children should be applied to all internally displaced women and children.
- One important aspect of relief that particularly affects women and children is the distribution of resources such as food, water, firewood and plastic sheeting. Control of these resources represents power. Men are usually in charge of distribution and often abuse their power by demanding bribes or sexual favours. This puts women at risk and especially female heads of households. As recommended in the UNHCR Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women, UNHCR and WFP should be in the forefront of ensuring that women are the initial point of control in distribution systems and that appropriate support systems are established for female-headed households.
- The first days and weeks of a mass displacement of people usually result in high mortality rates for children. Among displaced children, measles, diarrhoeal diseases, acute respiratory infections (ARI), malaria and malnutrition account for 60 to 80 per cent of reported deaths. Factors contributing to high mortality include overcrowding and lack of food and clean water, along with poor sanitation and lack of shelter. Pregnant and lactating women require particular attention, as do displaced children living with disabilities. Children coming from armed conflict are likely to have injuries that require special medical attention. In these circumstances, only a multi-sectoral approach to health and nutrition can protect young children.
- Camp environments are often highly militarized. In some instances, children have been taken, either forcibly or fraudulently, from camps to a third country for “political education” or military training. In several cases, host Governments have recruited refugee children for military service.
- The situation of internally displaced children
- Children who are displaced but remain in their own countries face perilous circumstances. They are often worse off than refugees, since they may lack access to protection and assistance. There are an increasing number of situations where families and communities are chronically displaced due to localized, continued armed conflict. Surveys have shown that the death rate among internally displaced persons has been as much as 60 per cent higher than the death rate of persons within the same country who are not displaced. 20/ Even when internally displaced families are housed with relatives or friends, they may not be secure, eventually facing resentment from their hosts because of the limited resources to be shared.
- Another acute problem for internally displaced children is access to health and education services. In contravention of humanitarian law, the access of internally displaced persons to humanitarian assistance is often impeded. Flight can put them beyond the reach of existing Government or NGO programmes. Even if schools exist, the children may not be able to enrol because they lack proper documentation, are not considered residents of the area or are unable to pay school fees. Feelings of exclusion, as well as the struggle for survival and protection, may lead children to join parties to the conflict or to become street children.
- While some organizations such as UNHCR, ICRC, IFRC and their National Societies and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have specific mandates with regard to internally displaced persons, at present there is no clear institutional responsibility for their protection and assistance needs. Organizations with mandates to protect and care for children affected by armed conflicts such as UNICEF, UNHCR and WFP, do not consistently ensure the protection and care of internally displaced children. The expert supports the call of the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons for the development of an appropriate legal framework and institutional arrangements to clearly establish assistance and protection responsibilities. The legal framework should be based on the report of the Representative on the compilation and analysis of legal norms applicable to internally displaced persons (E/CN.4/1996/52/Add.2).
- Asylum and the right to identity and nationality
- Statelessness is a risk for refugee children as they may have difficulty in establishing their identity and nationality. As article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides, all children should be registered and receive citizenship at birth. In the case of refugee children, only the host State is in a position to register the child. It is particularly important for a refugee child, especially if unaccompanied, to be provided with clear documentation concerning the identity of parents and place of birth.
- Families who reach a border are still very exposed, and young girls and women who have been separated from their families are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from border guards and others. Even those who succeed in crossing a border have no guarantee of asylum. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees may not fully cover those fleeing armed conflict. In cases of mass exodus from countries like Afghanistan and Viet Nam, many Governments were sufficiently flexible to grant temporary refuge. However, since the end of the cold war, many Governments have been more reluctant to grant asylum and have even sought to prevent asylum seekers from reaching their borders. As a minimum, Governments should grant temporary asylum pending the identification of a durable solution.
- One consequence of current policies is that a number of asylum seekers, including children, are detained while their cases are considered. Seeking asylum cannot be considered an offence or a crime, yet in some cases women and children are incarcerated with criminals. Countries that determine refugee status on an individual basis should under no circumstances refuse access to unaccompanied children seeking asylum. The Statement of the Sixth Regional Consultation on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children in Europe stressed that unaccompanied children should have access to asylum procedures regardless of age. Bearing in mind the critical development needs of children, long-term solutions should be found as quickly as possible. In accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and UNHCR guidelines, children should be fully involved in decisions about their future.