“The one thing all children have in common is their rights. Every child has the right to survive and thrive, to be educated, to be free from violence and abuse, to participate and to be heard.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for Universal Children’s Day, 20 November.
Alan Kurdi was three when his body, lying face down on a Turkish beach, became one of the defining images of the recent “refugee crisis”. Like so many other Syrians caught up in the conflict between Islamic State (IS) and government forces, Alan and his family had fled Syria for Turkey, a safe if temporary place of refuge. It took three years of working in Turkey for Alan’s father to earn enough money to pay further passage to Europe. In September 2015, the family boarded a ferry from Bodrum destined for the Greek island of Kos; the boat capsized, and Alan and 12 other passengers, including his mother and brother, drowned.
While it was the picture of a child’s body that prompted a global cry for compassion amid conflict, children are markedly absent from public discourse and policy responses to the refugee crisis. At the end of 2014, the UNHCR estimated that 51% of the world’s refugees—19.5 million people at that time—were under the age of 18. An even greater number, 38.2 million, were internally displaced; children constituted an uncertain by significant share of the IDP population as well, including 3 million in Syria alone. As the numbers of forced migrants have increased over the past 11 months, so too have discussions about the long-term implications of this humanitarian crisis. One group for whom such long-term implications are particularly pivotal is children.
Children are a fundamentally different population group than adults in several important ways. First, children are often dependent on those around them to meet their immediate needs; this is especially true for very young children. Second, children may be limited in the choices they can make, particularly when it comes to mobility. Third, even minor disruptions to the resources available at crucial times of a child’s development (including adequate nutrition, access to preventative healthcare, and cognitive stimulation) can lead to negative consequences for future well-being. State authorities therefore have a key role to play in enacting and implementing policies to protect the fundamental rights of children, which are under particular duress during conflict and flight.
During displacement, children face specific vulnerabilities that vary by the particular context and stage of displacement. The challenges facing children and families are not the same during flight as during temporary settlement, or during resettlement in an area of more permanent stay, or during return to the origin community. Even within different phases of displacement, the experiences of children may differ widely: a child in a refugee camp in Lebanon is unlikely to have the same resources and the same outcomes as a child residing in an urban informal settlement in Kabul, for instance. Children can also face different experiences in displacement depending on the social systems in which they are embedded: the protection needs of an unaccompanied minor (a child who migrates without a parent or guardian) will also differ from those of a child whose migration journey is shared with members of the family. Also individual characteristics, like stage in the lifecycle and gender chief among them, can introduce particular vulnerabilities to children in already tenuous protection settings.
Given the scale of recent forced migration and the number of children involved in it, the international community is faced with a mounting challenge: how can child well-being — and ‘well-becoming’ — be addressed amid so much displacement?
The first step in addressing the question requires collecting more systematic data on the scope of child displacement. Much data collected on forced population flows is not age disaggregated. Data that is disaggregated may not be cleaned, archived, and shared with the institutions that can best use it for programme planning or the development of policy or operational guidelines. Addressing the well-being of displaced children requires the knowledge that they are there; statistics can help ensure such visibility, but agencies and institutions that make contact with forced migrant children need to be equipped to collect such information.
The second step requires the elaboration of measures for child well-being, to be used in limited-resource contexts to collect data on child living conditions and related well-being outcomes. Designing child-sensitive programming requires identifying relevant aspects of child well-being and knowing where there are gaps in their protection. It also requires knowing what child-sensitive protection measures exist in different circumstances of displacement, from flight to asylum. This kind of knowledge requires data collection, which again entails providing agencies or institutions with the tools and resources to collect information from the populations they address.
A third step requires the development of coordinated, child-sensitive approaches to protection. For example, the European Commission has proposed that EU Member States take a common approach to unaccompanied minors to ensure the protection of children’s rights within EU28 asylum systems. In 2014, 626,000 applications for asylum were filed in the EU28; 26% of these claims were for children under the age of 18, including over 23,000 applications from unaccompanied minors. These numbers represent a challenge to adapt policies and procedures to the unique needs of this population as well as to normative standards relating to the rights of children, including the right to reunification with family members. Coordination of approaches should help to reduce protection gaps, moving the international community closer to the world envisioned in global agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Launched the same month of Alan Kurdi’s death, the SDGs call on the international community to ensure that “no one will be left behind.” Alan, and many other children whose homes and families have been torn apart, need that commitment more than ever.
UN Photo / R.Bajornas