Human Rights Day: What about displaced and refugee children’s rights?

10 December 2015

"I am Ali from Dier Al-Zour, [Syria], I am 7 years old. We have no heat, we use a tin can to feel warm. We have no fuel. We have nothing to eat. At night we have only bread and tea. Since our school in Syria was bombed, I do not go to school anymore. I wish I could go back to school to learn how to read." (Video interview with Ali, a Syrian refugee living in Bekka Valley, an informal tented settlement in Lebanon, 2015)

Children inside a classroom at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan. Credit: UN / Mark Garten.

“States parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance.” UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 22

In 2013, UN statistics showed that only 15 per cent of all international migrants were under the age of 20. The most common age group was 20-34 years old. This year however, things have changed, with growing numbers of refugee families with children on the move, as well as alarming numbers of unaccompanied children and young people. In the first nine months of 2015, 186,000 children sought asylum in the EU, almost double the number when compared to the same period in 2014. Children make up one third of those who have drowned in the Aegean Sea this year; in October alone, at least 90 children died this way. Worldwide, over 22 million children are thought to be displaced due to armed conflict or human rights abuses. Many of these children will be displaced for their entire childhood; they may never go to school or access their other human rights, as set out in international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26.

For displaced children in countries affected by conflict, education becomes a distant dream as schools are destroyed and teachers and pupils alike flee in search of safety. UNICEF states that at least two million Syrian children have dropped out of school over the last five years because of the war. Of course Syria is by no means the only place this is happening; see, just for one example, this short clip from Nigeria. For many refugee and migrant children moving to new countries, hopes of education are dashed as they find they have no legal right to education in these countries (see, for example, the case of refugee children in Malaysia), or that informal barriers prevent them from attending school (the situation facing many Syrian children in Turkey).

Displaced and refugee girls and young women are even less likely than boys to attend school. Many have fled situations of conflict and gender-based violence, only to find that their new location is not safe either. In situations of displacement girls may be kept at home to care for family members, or because they are at risk of gender-based violence in spaces within and around refugee camps. Poverty, overwork and limited social support mean that girls are at risk of sexual exploitation, even in spaces assumed safe such as schools. This Eldis gender update from IDS covers this situation in more detail.

Boys also face specific challenges. While official data is not available on the age and gender characteristics of refugees recently arriving in Europe, observers have noted significant numbers of unaccompanied boys and teenagers. The number of teenage boys fleeing Afghanistan is particularly high. Testimonies from these boys suggest that in situations where whole families cannot afford to travel, it is the boys who are more likely to be sent alone. In many countries of conflict and mass displacement, boys are at particular risk of abduction and recruitment as child soldiers (although girls are not immune to this either). Fleeing this risk may result in children’s displacement or refugee status, but conversely, children are more likely to be recruited as combatants if they are separated from their families or homes, or have limited access to education.

“Governments have a responsibility to take all available measures to make sure children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. [...] They must help families protect children’s rights and create an environment where they can grow and reach their potential.” UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 4

Today is Human Rights Day. Let us celebrate and support the brave, heartfelt and tireless work going on around the world to protect, fight for and realise the human rights of displaced and refugee children. Just a few examples out of many: the volunteer lifeguards pulling refugee children out of the Mediterranean Sea, the volunteer educators sending mobile school buses to children and the builders donating their time to erect shelters in the Calais refugee camp, the refugees setting up makeshift schools in their own shelters and tents, and the many organisations and volunteers taking warm clothes, food and tents to vulnerable refugees stranded at closed borders across Europe.

But let us also send a clear message to our governments; we cannot and should not rely on volunteer efforts alone. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was more rapidly and widely adopted than any other international human rights treaty; it has been ratified by 196 of the world’s countries, and its optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict has been ratified by 162. These countries have a clear responsibility toward these children, and their rights to survival, development, protection and participation. On Human Rights Day let’s tell our governments to invest in peace and human rights. Let’s tell them how important this is, and let’s not take no for an answer.  

Read more about one unaccompanied boy’s journey from Afghanistan to Calais, and finally to the UK. 

Thank you to Stephanie Bengtsson for talking to me about this blog.

Jenny Birchall is Gender Convenor at IDS, based in the Gender and Sexuality research cluster. Follow her on Twitter @jenny_ids.

Image: 'Children inside a classroom at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan.' Credit: UN / Mark Garten (cc on flickr). 

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