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Uprooted children

The waves of violence that have swept across the world in recent years have uprooted enormous numbers of people—at least half of whom are children. Some are classified as 'displaced', having fled their homes to move elsewhere within their own country; others are 'refugees' who have crossed borders into neighbouring countries. The total number of uprooted people is currently around 53 million—one out of every 115 people on earth has been forced into flight.21 Since three quarters of refugees have fled from one developing country to another, this places an enormous strain on countries that already have problems caring for their own populations.

When forced into squalor and deprivation—the characteristic conditions of refugee camps—children are at particular risk. One of the most serious problems is malnutrition. In 1992, refugee populations in Somalia had mortality rates very much higher than during peace. There have been widespread outbreaks of micronutrient diseases such as scurvy, beri-beri and pellagra.22 And in Angola, Liberia and the Sudan, the prevalence of wasting was more than 40 per cent. In the Goma refugee camp in eastern Zaire in 1994, a cholera epidemic killed 50,000 people in just one month.


Photo: Civil war in Rwanda separated some 114,000 children from their parents. Finding their families is a first priority for UNICEF. ©


Most refugee and displaced children travel with their families. But many lose their parents. 'Unaccompanied minors' typically account for up to 5 per cent of a refugee population, and often more—as children are lost, separated or orphaned in the panic of flight.23 In Rwanda at the end of 1994, an estimated 114,000 children had been separated from their families.24 In Angola, a 1995 UNICEF survey found that 20 per cent of children had been separated at some time from their parents and relatives.25 Almost all separations are accidental, but some are deliberate. Haitians and Vietnamese, for example, have sometimes sent children ahead in boats in the hope that the whole family will find it easier to gain asylum.

One of the most disturbing cases of lost children has emerged in the civil war in southern Sudan. Apart from the main government and opposition groups, there are also various militias that spread terror by pillaging villages and killing or seizing their inhabitants. Fearing capture or death, at least 20,000 Sudanese young people, mostly boys between the ages of 7 and 17, have fled their homes. Thousands of girls have also been killed or abducted by the raiders, but few have run away from their villages since it is more difficult for girls to envisage life outside their families. These 'lost boys' of the Sudan have been trekking enormous distances over a vast unforgiving wilderness, seeking refuge from the fighting. Hungry, frightened and weakened by sleeplessness and disease, they have crossed from the Sudan into Ethiopia and back. Many have died on the journey; most survivors are now in camps in the parched north-western plains of Kenya (Panel 3).26

Not all lost children will remain on their own for long. Many who have parted from their parents are subsequently taken in by members of their extended family or community. In Mozambique, a large number of the estimated 200,000 orphaned and unaccompanied children have been absorbed by extended families, or by members of former communities or ethnic groups.27 Others are likely to end up in the cities. A 1991 study in Liberia found that over 90 per cent of those children surveyed who were living or working on the streets had been there only since the war, and over half of them said they were there because they had been separated from their families.28


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