UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi's remarks at the UN Security Council Arria formula meeting on Addressing challenges of children without parental care in conflict settings

As delivered

03 December 2021
Sihouette of a teenager standing in front of a window
UNICEF/ Atdhe Mulla

NEW YORK, 3 December 2021 - "War rips families apart in myriad ways. Some families become separated while spontaneously fleeing from violence to safety. They may plan for family members to travel separately for safety, but find they cannot reunite, and have lost each other, sometimes across front lines or international borders. Other children are forcibly displaced, abducted, recruited and used, detained by parties to conflict, separating them from families and loved ones.

"Children who are separated from their parents and caregivers are immediately at greater risk of violations of their rights. Physical violence, sexual violence, abuse, exploitation, recruitment and use, child labor, child marriage, trafficking are all very real threats. They are less likely to stay in school or access basic services. In many contexts, these children also face being placed in institutions, deprived of liberty, or living in the street.

"The immediate and long-term damage caused by family separation and unsuitable alternative care, particularly in institutions, is well documented. Institutions are often characterized by inherently harmful living arrangements. Children are frequently deprived of the ability to make choices that suit their best interests.

"What’s more, children in alternative care are regularly isolated from their families and local communities. Deprived of parental care, they can endure physical, psychological, emotional and social harm, with consequences that last a lifetime. These children are also more likely to experience violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.

"Keeping families together is vital for the safety and wellbeing of children. This was underscored in the unanimously adopted 2019 UNGA Resolution on the Rights of the Child. UNICEF strives to ensure separation of children from families is prevented and when it does occur promptly addressed. Together with partners like ICRC, UNHCR, IOM and NGOs, we promote community- and family-based care that is in the child’s best interest.

"In 2020, there was a 142 per cent increase in the number of unaccompanied and separated children registered for UNICEF support and a 163 per cent increase of such children, who were reached and provided with family tracing, reunification services and alternative care, compared with the year before. This is due in large to part to the global pandemic. UNICEF and partners supported over 135,000 children received Family Tracing and Reunification services and alternative care across 75 countries. We also continue innovating to reach more children. The Primero - Child Protection Information Management System is used in 14 different humanitarian settings now to strengthen case management, including family tracing and reunification. It includes specific technology to pair tracing requests made by caregivers with records of children registered as separated or unaccompanied.

"Last year in Afghanistan, almost 7,750 unaccompanied children received a comprehensive package of services. They were primarily children who returned because of the COVID-19 pandemic from countries in the region where they had sought safety and services. UNICEF scaled up its response from 15 to 19 provinces, supporting temporary care in transit centres and family tracing services. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, UNICEF, IOM and relevant Afghan authorities signed a cooperation framework on the return and reintegration of separated children. This was instrumental in strengthening coordination processes.

"This year, following the collapse of the government in August, UNICEF provided protection and family tracing for children separated from their families leaving the country. While evacuations were ongoing, UNICEF deployed child protection specialists to Hamid Karzai International Airport to immediately identify and register separated children and provide care and protection inside the airport. During this period and under extraordinarily challenging conditions, UNICEF registered around 160 unaccompanied children, of which more than 140 traveled out and more than a dozen were reunified with their families in Kabul. We also partnered with IOM and UNHCR to trace families of hundreds of children outside Afghanistan who were separated during evacuation flights. The majority of those children have been reunified with extended family members, and family reunification with parents continues.

"However, in many other contexts, family tracing and reunification is a long and challenging process, especially when conflicts continue or public health restrictions hinder programme interventions. For example, in Somalia where UNICEF supported over 11,000 separated children (almost 40 per cent girls) in 2020, many stayed in alternative care longer because of insecurity in a central part of the country, delaying reunification.

"In light of the lasting consequences for children deprived of parental care, we ask Member States, including Council members, to demonstrate a unified voice on this critical humanitarian issue and to take all steps possible to promote the following:

  1. Uphold family unity and prevent family separation before it happens. The bottom line is that if parties to conflict adhere to applicable international law, family separation in situations of conflict will be greatly reduced and children will be better protected.
  2. Prioritize prompt family reunification. Unaccompanied and separated children must be provided with services aimed at reuniting them with their parents or primary legal or customary caregivers as quickly as possible, unless it is not in their best interests. Temporary care should allow for reunification as promptly as possible.
  3. Governments are responsible for all children without parental care, including their reunification and without discrimination. The social services workforce are essential workers at all times, especially in crises. They can help prevent family separation from occurring and are critical for the response.
  4. Ensure the safety of separated children throughout temporary care and tracing processes. All those who provide care and services for separated children must be vigilant in protecting against any form of harm, exploitation or abuse.
  5. Finally, adoption is not an appropriate response during a crisis. Children who are separated from their parents in an emergency cannot be assumed to be orphans and are not available for adoption. Until the fate of a child's parents/other close relatives can be verified, each separated child is considered as still having living close relatives.

"In closing, I will underscore that family unity entitles all children to a right to a family life, and families to a right to care for their children. Even in armed conflicts – when they need their parent’s protection and care most. Thank you."

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