Over 13 million children are refugees, and 23 million more have been displaced in their own countries - but the stats hide the true level of suffering of children fleeing from conflict or disaster.
Image above: Young Rohingya refugees look out over Palong Khali refugee camp, a sprawling site located on a hilly area near the Myanmar border in south-east Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell
On this World Refugee Day, it is a devastating realisation that over 13 million children worldwide are refugees. An estimated 23 million more children have been displaced in their own countries. Forced to flee from their homes due to conflict, poverty, climate-related disasters, and violence, they are confronted by unfathomable challenges as they seek safety in unfamiliar and, sometimes, inhospitable environments.
The biggest contributors to this unprecedented level of displacement are the ongoing conflict in Syria, the persecution of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, and the entrenched conflicts in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Somalia. 68% of all refugees (of all ages) worldwide come from these five countries. Unsurprisingly, it is neighbouring countries which provide shelter, with the vast majority of refugees being hosted by low- and middle-income countries – Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Lebanon, and Iran are the five host countries which accepted the most refugees in 2017. Lebanon and Jordan have been supporting refugee populations for decades: 1 in 6 people in Lebanon is a refugee; in Jordan, including Palestinian refugees, 1 in 3 people is a refugee.
However, almost every country in the world houses refugees and asylum-seekers.
While facts and statistics provide an often-shocking overview, we cannot let the scale of the crisis harden us to the suffering of those affected – or prevent us from stopping harm that can yet come to them. For children and young people, the threat of exploitation is ever-present, and everyone has a responsibility to provide care to this vulnerable population.
US family separation policy breaches the international declaration instigated by the United States
The recent coverage of the horrifying practice of separating families from their children as they seek asylum in the United States has led to a global outcry. In the last five weeks over 2300 children have been separated from their families and placed in detention centres – some of whom are babies. Despite being the sole country in the world yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 2016, the United States – along with every other UN member state – signed the New York Declaration, and committed to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all refugee and migrant children, regardless of their status, and giving primary consideration at all times to the best interests of the child; recognised that detention for the purposes of determining migration status is seldom, if ever, in the best interest of the child; and committed to ending detention of child migrants. Not only does present US policy contradict this, it contravenes the international Refugee Convention – again ratified by the United States – to ensure the unity of the family is maintained.
These are the children of families fleeing deep-rooted poverty, persecution, crime-related violence, or, in some cases, domestic abuse and violence. Even though this policy has come to an end, the parents and families of existing or potential asylum-seekers will be placed in the criminal justice system. For the children already being held in detention centres, the future will be far from certain; while they may be eventually reunited with their families, this could mean they remain in detention, with questionable access to health, protection, and educational services.
At least 100 countries detain children for immigration reasons
The world’s eyes have been opened to the abuses faced by children and young people seeking asylum by the situation in the world’s richest country. But it’s not the only country in the world which keeps children and young people in detention for the crime of fleeing danger.
There are no exact figures to show how many children are detained worldwide, but the Global Campaign to End Child Immigration Detention estimates that at least 100 countries detain children for immigration reasons. The campaign’s focus countries include Australia, Malaysia, Israel, South Africa, Greece, and Mexico as well as the USA –all states which detain children on the basis of their immigration status.
Children on the move – fleeing danger to face danger
As well as children and young people who are detained due to their immigration status:
- In 2017, almost 200,000 young refugees and asylum-seekers were unaccompanied.
- At least 10,000 child migrants disappeared in Europe alone in 2016.
- An estimated 1,200+ migrant children worldwide have died since 2014.
All of the above figures are provided by UN agencies, and all are acknowledged by the UN to be likely underestimations.
In 2015, the United States Department of Health and Human Services was found to have placed eight unaccompanied minors with human traffickers, who forced the children to live and work in squalid conditions for 12 hours a day, for six-seven days a week, for over a year.
In October-December 2016, the United States government was ‘unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts’ of 1,475 unaccompanied child migrants.
All children and young people fleeing danger in their home towns and countries are vulnerable to physical violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and child labour. This particularly effects children who are travelling alone: a recent UNICEF/IOM report stated that children & young people travelling alone from the Middle East & Africa to Europe are more than twice as likely to be exploited as those travelling in groups.
Even when they find places of relative safety, they are often unable to gain access to reliable health care or education – both of which are their right under various international conventions. This is unsurprising, given that the majority of refugees are housed in countries or areas which cannot afford to provide regular access to good quality public services without the support of international aid from governments or charitable organisations.
This all contributes to displaced and refugee children and young people being some of the most vulnerable and excluded in the world.
How you can help
As a simple starting point, let people know! Share news stories and your own thoughts on social media, speak to friends and family, and reach out to groups which are taking action on behalf of children and young people facing these dangers.
A longer-term and much-needed action is to contact your political representatives. Contact details for your representative should be easily found online: politicians are accountable to all citizens and you have the right to contact them, ask questions, and make demands.
The demands you can make depend on where you live: if your country is hosting child refugees and asylum-seekers, you can ask your representative how many children are being hosted and are applying for asylum, ask how your country treats them, and demand they have access to public services like medical care and education. If you live in a wealthy country, you can ask how much money your country is spending on international aid to support children and young people on the move, and how many children and young people your country is willing to host. You can state your concerns and beliefs about how your country should be supporting them and demand they increase both of these.
Finally, donating to charitable organisations which provide direct assistance (such as health care, education, clothing, and food) and/or legal and advocacy support to refugees is another way to show your support. Do your research first: work out where you would like to help (for example which country and which type of support) and find out which organisations are providing these services.
Seven-year-old Syrian refugee Vahide holds her baby sister in their family home in Istanbul. © UNHCR/Emrah Gurel
It’s down to us to act
No child anywhere in the world bears responsibility for the injustices of conflict, violence, climate disaster, entrenched poverty, or persecution, yet they are the most vulnerable victims. Governments have a responsibility to safeguard and deliver the rights of every child to be free and safe, but the situations faced by millions of child refugees, child asylum-seekers, and displaced children show that they are failing. The 100 Million campaign urges citizens to call for justice for the rights of children facing exclusion everywhere: change is possible if we stand in solidarity to demand it.