Of the millions of children displaced by war, unaccompanied children are the most likely to be killed, tortured, raped, robbed and recruited as child soldiers.
At least half of the estimated 57.4 million people displaced by war around the world are children, and millions of those children have been separated from their families, according to a new United Nations report. It calls for policies to discourage wartime separation of children from their parents, and to be more sensitive to the specific needs of unaccompanied children in wartime. The report was written by Graça Machel, the Secretary-General's Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.
The rapidly swelling numbers of displaced children¹ around the world stagger the imagination. Millions of children have been separated from their families, physically abused, exploited, abducted, drafted into military groups — or have perished as a result of hunger and disease.
In Rwanda alone, by the end of 1994, more than 100,000 children had been separated from their families — the highest number of such children registered by UNICEF since the agency was founded in 1946. In Angola in 1995, a UNICEF study found that 20 per cent of the country's children had been separated from their parents and relatives. In Cambodia, the huge loss of life under Khmer Rouge rule has left fewer adults to care for children — this in a country in which half the population is under the age of 15. The disintegration of the Cambodian family has led to vastly increased rates of delinquency, crime, drug abuse and child prostitution.
Contrary to widely-held belief, many unaccompanied displaced children are not orphans. The report urges that tracing family members be made a top priority and that adoption be permitted only as a last resort. "Adoption severs family links permanently and should not be considered unless all family tracing efforts have been exhausted," the report says.
Greater attention must also be given to children who have been displaced within their own countries, as they often lack access to relief programmes, the reports states.
Of the millions of children displaced by war, unaccompanied children are at the greatest risk. They are the likeliest to lack the most basic means of survival and to have their rights violated, the likeliest to be killed, tortured, raped, robbed and recruited as child soldiers.
Many children have endured unimaginable horrors in an effort to escape from war. Thousands of unaccompanied Sudanese boys as young as seven and eight years of age journeyed on foot in search of safety across the border in Kenya. En route, soldiers, militiamen, boatmen and unscrupulous merchants often stole the boys' blankets, shoes and cooking pots. "When we ran in this war, we were in the White Nile," one of these young refugees later told aid workers. "Our total number was 129 people. When we crossed the river, the crocodiles caught 34 people."
In the absence of their parents, children, usually adolescent girls, often assume responsibility for their younger siblings. In September 1995, UNICEF and the Rwandan Government identified 1,939 children living in child-headed households. Armed conflict is not the only reason children have to assume such responsibility: in many African countries AIDS has cut a swath through an entire generation of young parents. Child-headed households have an acute need for social and legal protection. While some communities are supportive, all too many neighbours and relations are ready to exploit orphans and steal their property. "The principle of family unity, as safeguarded in the Convention of the Rights of the Child, must be the basis of all support for these children," says the report.
Physical suffering may not even be the worst trial a child has to endure. War can lead to temporary or permanent separation of children from their parents or other adult caregivers. Those relationships are "the major source of a child's emotional and physical security," the report says, so "separation can have a devastating social and psychological impact."
Without such relationships, children remain vulnerable to continued exploitation. It was reported to a UNICEF delegation in Cambodia that some refugee families had temporarily adopted unaccompanied children in order to obtain additional food and relief supplies, only to abandon the children once they had returned to Cambodia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ms. Machel learned, some evacuations of children had been organized by groups intent on profiting from adoption markets.
The report calls for tighter procedures to ensure that each child has a continuous caregiver, preferably from his or her own family, and failing that, neighbours, friends or other substitutes. One innovative alternative has been tried effectively in Sudanese refugee camps in Ethiopia: 'villages' have been created with three to five children living together in each traditional hut under the supervision of a caregiver from among their own people.
"Institutional responses" should be minimized whenever possible, the report urges. The creation of children's centres may actually result in an increase in the number of unaccompanied children by encouraging mothers to leave their children where they hope they will be better provided with food and health care. Instead, the report stresses, "this underlines the need to prevent family separation by ensuring that vulnerable families are supported in caring for their children."
The report also says that refugee camps should be located far from conflict zones to reduce the risk of children being enticed or recruited into warring groups.
Meanwhile, reunification programmes must be a crucial part of emergency humanitarian work and should be initiated as a priority in all new relief operations. Even in the midst of catastrophe, much can be accomplished. UNICEF has registered more than 6,300 unaccompanied children in and from former Yugoslavia through Operation ReUnite, the computer system of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Through it, digitalized photographs of children are made available to parents searching for their offspring. And in Rwanda the Red Cross, UNICEF, UNHCR, the non-governmental organization Save the Children and other partners have collaborated with the Kodak company to enter the photographs and personal data of displaced children into computers. Printouts are then distributed in refugee camps in an effort to reunite families.
Overall, more than 100,000 unaccompanied children have been registered in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and by May 1996, over 33,000 had been reunited with their families.
¹ The term 'refugee' is used exclusively for persons who have been forced to leave their own countries. 'Displaced persons' are both refugees and those forced into internal exile.