As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, 100 Million demands that child refugees receive their fair share of protection and support.
COVID-19’s impact is much wider than the virus itself, and those least able to protect themselves from either are suffering the worst. This includes over 13 million child refugees, of whom over 100,000 are unaccompanied by any family member, as well as millions more children displaced in their own countries. All of them have been driven from their homes by wars, disasters, and violence, and are entirely reliant on government systems which are proving to be dangerously inadequate for their protection.
(Main image: an unaccompanied child refugee in Bidibidi camp, Uganda, receiving soap from 100 Million campaign partner I CAN South Sudan.)
Refugee children come bottom of the list
As countries seek ways to face down this pandemic, their focus has naturally been placed on measures to protect citizens within their own borders. However, for the refugees who fall within these borders, their needs usually come bottom of the list, because they are not counted as citizens of the country from which they are seeking protection until they receive official recognition by the government. Depending on which country they are in, it can take months or even years to receive this recognition. For unaccompanied children, this process is extremely difficult, as they are not just reliant on being recognised, they must also be placed with families or in protective care provided by the government.
While they wait, refugees are forced to live in camps, informal settlements, or temporary housing – accommodation which is often crowded, lacking adequate sanitation facilities, and with poor access to healthcare and education. (Image left: a camp in Syria for citizens displaced by conflict.)
Looking specifically at refugee camps, they are neither designed nor equipped for pandemics of this nature. The minimum standards for a typical camp call for a maximum of 120 people to one water tap and 3.5 square meters of living space per person. Most, if not all, refugee camps are operating beyond this capacity, making simple protective measures – such as hand washing and social distancing – next to impossible to achieve.
School closures too are impacting refugee children; with no regular access to the internet or even electricity, there has been no online learning. At a much more basic level, refugee children who may have been reliant on school feeding programmes or just the protection of being in a safe space during the day have had a critical support line taken away from them.
Closed borders putting lives at risk
Many of the countries which house hundreds of thousands of refugees were also very fast in closing their borders to protect citizens from the pandemic, as well as putting in place more military to patrol not just the borders, but also the curfews and other measures put in place. This militarised response may seem like protection on the surface, but in practice it has forced refugees to pursue more irregular routes when fleeing conflict at home to enter neighbouring countries. While this poses challenges if they are infected with the virus and enter already crowded settlements, it is also much more dangerous for refugees – especially children – to flee, as they risk being killed in their pursuit of safety.
Food security under threat
According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences, for an active, healthy life. However, when refugees are forced to rely on the government or on international agencies and charities, they have no control over food security for themselves or their families.
For example, refugees are rarely ‘officially’ allowed to work, and they are reliant on whatever the government or international bodies, like the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR), will provide for them including an income, food, shelter, and access to basic services like school and healthcare. For those who may have a work permit – for example, some adult refugees who have been living in Za’atari camp in Jordan for years – COVID-19 lockdowns have stopped this vital source of income and have made it difficult for refugee families to keep their children nourished and healthy. The reality is also that some refugees work illegally just to survive – and again, lockdowns have blocked off this source of income.
When the agencies that refugees rely on stop providing, lives are put at risk. In mid-April, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced a 30% cut in food rations to vulnerable refugees in land-locked Uganda, citing insufficient funds. The agency warned that further cuts may follow as they are grappling with a $137m deficit for its 2020 operations. Uganda currently hosts over 1.4 million refugees, with around a quarter of the refugee population being children. An estimated 40,000 of these children are unaccompanied.
This massive cut in financing not only takes away food security, but it also makes children much more vulnerable to desperate measures to access food and other supplies, including commercial sexual exploitation and early marriage. Furthermore, during such stressful times and circumstances, it is likely that incidents of violence and child abuse may go up.
Shaza al-Hariri (image above, courtesy Moises Saman) is 17 and lives in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan. She is in the last grade of high school, studying for exams and worried that she will catch the coronavirus when she has to leave the closed camp to write them. She expresses her concerns about the lockdown: "There is physical abuse and emotional abuse in homes. When the men don't have a chance to work sometimes they release that anger on their families."
Appeals for help are being ignored
Even though governments are well aware that refugee children are at serious risk during the pandemic and beyond, the calls for help and funding made by the United Nations, and by some governments hosting refugees, are largely being ignored.
The UN’s COVID-19 humanitarian crisis appeal remains underfunded by around 80%. A recent appeal for refugees and displaced persons in the Sahel region of Africa is underfunded by 87% - with the vast majority of contributions so far coming from private or individual donations, not governments. Recent campaigns to move fewer than 2,000 unaccompanied refugee children living in extremely dangerous conditions on the Greek islands saw some initial agreement from European governments, but many have since used the pandemic as an excuse not to act on these promises.
When refugee children are clearly suffering disproportionately from both the pandemic and the response measures put in place by governments and the relevant stakeholders, it is shameful that they are not receiving their fair share of protection that rich countries are providing to protect their own economies from the impact of coronavirus. Just a tiny fraction of the $8 trillion committed by the G20 countries would transform the lives of refugee children all over the world, but their plight is being ignored. This is a disgrace.
On World Refugee Day 2020 - now more than ever - we must stand in solidarity with refugee children and demand that they receive justice. The UN appeals for funding must be fulfilled at the very least, but the protective measures being afforded to regular citizens by their governments must also be extended to refugees. This includes income guarantees, access to quality learning and education, access to healthcare, and food security. If our world wants to eradicate coronavirus and protect its citizens from its impacts, then governments must ensure everyone is included – especially the children who are already suffering the hardest.