Note on Refugee ChildrenNote on Refugee Children
EC/SCP/46

Introduction

1. Refugee children comprise approximately one-half of the world's refugee population, and as such benefit from general efforts on behalf of all refugees with respect to international protection, material assistance and durable solutions. Children, however, have special needs which must be identified and met. While refugee children have always been a major concern of UNHCR, they have received increasing attention in recent years. This is due both to the substantial number of children in the various large-scale refugee situations in different parts of the world and to the complexity of the problems to which their presence gives rise, as well as to the wider international attention now given to children in general and refugee children in particular.

2. According to well-established principles at the international and national levels, children deserve special treatment. Their situation is also taken into account in various international instruments (universal1 and regional2 The 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the Assembly of the League of Nations, states that "The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress" (Principle 3). The 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child provides in Principle 8 that: "The child shall in all circumstances be among the first to receive protection and relief".

3. These principles and instruments are, of course, also applicable to refugee children. The situation of refugee children is, moreover, specifically mentioned in the United Nations Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child in the following terms:

"11 bis. The States Parties to the present Convention shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his parents, legal guardians or close relatives, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in this Convention and other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which the said States are parties. In view of the important functions performed in refugee protection and assistance matters by the United Nations and other competent inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, the States parties to the present Convention shall provide appropriate co-operation in any efforts by these organizations to protect and assist such a child and to trace the parents or other close relatives of an unaccompanied refugee child in order to obtain information necessary for reunification with his family. In cases where no parents, legal guardians or close relatives can be found, the child shall be accorded the same protection as any other child permanently or temporarily deprived of his family environment for any reason set forth in the present Convention."

4. The responsibility of the High Commissioner for refugee children has been endorsed by the General Assembly on a number of occasions. In Resolution 35/135 of 11 December 1980, the Assembly:

"1. Requests all States to co-operate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to assure full protection of the well-being of women and children in particular, in accordance with their fundamental rights under international law and national legislation".

In the same year the General Assembly stressed that among the problems posed by the plight of refugees in various parts of the world, that of children was especially anguishing. The General Assembly cited the situation of refugee and displaced children, who had not yet been settled, many of whom had lost all members of their immediate families. In Resolution 35/187 of 15 December the Assembly:

"1. Expresses its gratitude to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the action he has already taken to assist refugee and displaced children, and requests him to intensify his efforts in that respect, endeavouring to ensure as far as possible that the cultural and family identity of the minors settled is preserved".

5. Refugee children were also included by the Executive Committee in Conclusion No. 22 (XXXII) on Protection of asylum-seekers in situations of large-scale influx, which recommends that with respect to asylum-seekers temporarily admitted to a country pending arrangements for a durable solution, it is essential that:

"(j) adequate provision should be made for the protection of minors and unaccompanied children."

At its thirty-seventh session in 1986, the Executive Committee, in its General Conclusions on International Protection:

(m) Noted that the situation of refugee children also required special consideration and called upon the High Commissioner to report regularly to the Executive Committee on the needs of refugee children, and on existing and proposed programmes for their benefit."

6. Following that session, UNHCR established a Working Group on Refugee Children at Risk, which is the focal point for all activities concerning refugee children. The Office is also one of the sponsors of 'an extensive study regarding the care and placement of unaccompanied children in wars, natural disasters and refugee movements, the results of which will be published in 1987.3 UNHCR Headquarters and Field Offices are co-operating in current research on trauma amongst refugee children, which is intended to test methods for helping them to recover from the effects of violence and uprooting.4 Outside UNHCR, studies on refugee children have been conducted in academic circles and by non-governmental organizations in countries of temporary and durable asylum. These have dealt, inter alia, with psycho-social problems, integration, education and legal questions. However, more detailed knowledge and understanding of the needs of refugee children in the protection and assistance areas is called for and would benefit all in the refugee field - countries of asylum and countries of origin, UNHCR, other international organizations such as UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO, non-governmental organizations and, of course, the refugee communities themselves.

7. Refugee children have faced particularly serious problems in recent years, both in regard to protection and assistance and protection and durable solutions. Given the interdependence of such problems they are examined together in the following paragraphs.

8. There is currently no universally accepted definition of the term "refugee children", and this expression will therefore be used to include refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced persons of concern to UNHCR, up to the age of 18 unless under applicable national law, the age of majority is less. This formula is also adopted in Article 1 of the United Nations Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child.5

Refugee children and international protection, assistance and durable solutions

9. In accordance with its mandate, UNHCR seeks to provide international protection to all refugees, including children and to see that appropriate durable solutions are found for them. The Office also undertakes assistance activities, geared to these objectives.

10. Refugee children benefit from these general efforts, but their precarious situation gives rise to special problems. Protection problems exist in the determination of refugee status, physical protection, registration and statelessness. Children have special assistance needs in the areas of health and nutrition, education and religious, cultural and recreational activities. When the refugee child is accompanied by one or both parents, determining the appropriate durable solution does not usually give rise to particular difficulties; finding solutions is more complicated, however, in the case of unaccompanied refugee children. Even when a durable solution has been found, problems of integration may arise. The above-mentioned problems are often more acute in the case of vulnerable groups, such as children who are unaccompanied, separated from their parents, disabled or staying for extended periods in camps.

11. Two principles guide action on behalf of refugee children - the principle of the best interests of the child and the principle of family unity. All action concerning refugee children, whether by UNHCR or governmental or non-governmental agencies, and whether directed towards protection, emergency relief, intermediate assistance or durable solutions, should be governed by the principle of the best interests of the child.6 This requires that the child's welfare precedes all other considerations, that individuality be respected and that physical, psychological and social developmental needs be met.7 From this it follows, firstly, that what is best for the refugee child comes before any political, social or other consideration; secondly, that, wherever possible, an individual assessment of needs and circumstances should take place with the child's participation; and thirdly, that the objective of action on behalf of the refugee child should be to enable him or her "to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner".8 The best interests principle further requires that those who make decisions and take action on behalf of refugee children be fully qualified and sensitive to their needs in the light of the children's particular circumstances.

12. In determining the best interests of the child the fundamental principle of family unity should be taken into account whenever appropriate. This is the case, for example, when dealing with the situation of unaccompanied refugee children (see below). Ever since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which declares in Article 12 that "the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State", most international human rights instruments have contained similar provisions.9 The Conference of Plenipotentiaries that adopted the 1951 UN Refugee Convention recommended in its Final Act that Governments take the necessary measures for the protection of the refugee's family, especially with a view to:

"(1) Ensuring that the unity of the refugee's family is maintained particularly in cases where the head of the family has fulfilled the necessary conditions for admission to a particular country,

(2) The protection of refugees who are minors, in particular unaccompanied children and girls, with special reference to guardianship and adoption".

13. In seeking solutions, account must first be taken of the need to maintain family unity or, where it has been broken, to reunite refugee children with their close family members. However, family reunification may not always be possible or appropriate in view of the special circumstances existing in a given refugee situation. It will then be necessary to determine the appropriate action to be taken towards finding a solution, on the basis of the principle of the best interests of the child.

Specific issues concerning refugee children

(a) Status determination

14. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees define a refugee regardless of age, and make no special provision for the status of refugee children. The application of the criteria of " well-founded fear" to children does not normally give rise to any problem when, as in the majority of cases, they are accompanied by their parents. It is generally agreed, on the basis of the principle of family unity, that when the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition, his or her dependants are also granted refugee status.

15. The determination of the refugee status of unaccompanied children is clearly difficult, however, and requires special attention. The Office's experience in different refugee situations in various parts of the world has enabled it to identify appropriate guidelines for such cases. Firstly, the degree of maturity of the child bears on the manner in which refugee status must be determined. Where the child is mature enough to have and to express a well-founded fear of persecution, the case may be treated in a manner similar to that of an adult. Where this degree of maturity does not exist, objective factors such as the situation prevailing in the country of origin and the circumstances of family members there should be accorded greater weight. Secondly, the difficulties which children may face in expressing themselves call for a very careful examination of their case, bearing in mind the need to grant the benefit of the doubt. If sufficiently mature, the children should be heard, provided that this would not be detrimental to their well-being. In some countries, arrangements are made for children to be represented in the determination procedure by a competent adult.

16. An unaccompanied child forming part of a large-scale influx, in respect of which a prima facie group determination of refugee status has been made, will be assumed to be of concern to UNHCR, which must take the necessary action in order to ensure protection and promote a durable solution. In so doing, UNHCR must consider all the circumstances of the case, taking due account of the principles of family unity and the best interests of the child.

(b) Physical protection and related matters

17. Refugee children, like refugees in general, have suffered violations of their security, either during the flight to safety or in countries of asylum. In different areas of the world, refugee children are killed, tortured, physically abused, neglected, abandoned and abducted. They are also subjected to exploitation, such as forced labour, prostitution and sexual abuse. As the primary responsibility for ensuring the physical safety and security of refugees rests with the country of asylum, reports of such violations are brought to the attention of the authorities by UNHCR. In some situations, co-operation between the authorities of the country of asylum and UNHCR has led to the adoption of measures to prevent further violations and to assist the victims. To combat abuse, the presence of national officials and/or international staff has been increased in refugee camps and settlements and along routes of flight, refugee camps have been relocated and offenders have been prosecuted. Programmes have been established to provide medical treatment, rehabilitation, counselling and special treatment to the victims of violence and torture. In a number of countries, however, measures have not yet been taken either to prevent further violations or to assist the victims.

18. In a few countries, refugee children are being forcibly recruited from refugee camps to join opposition groups in the country of origin or national armed forces of the country of asylum. The Office will continue to intervene rigorously with the authorities of the country concerned in order to stop this practice.

19. Military or armed attacks on refugee camps and settlements, from across but also from within national borders, continue to claim the lives of innocent refugee children. During such attacks, refugee children have also been among the seriously wounded and have suffered other forms of physical abuse. The gravity of this question has been repeatedly stressed by the Executive Committee. Further, efforts within the Executive Committee and elsewhere relating to military or armed attacks on refugee camps and settlements are needed to put an end to such attacks and to the resulting killing and maiming of refugee children.

20. Refugee children are also the victims of piracy, a problem which has likewise received the attention of the Executive Committee in recent years. The number of pirate attacks in the waters of South-East Asia has diminished, but refugee children continue to be killed and abducted, and to be subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation. The Anti-Piracy Programme, established by the Royal Thai Government with the assistance of UNHCR and with funding provided by 12 donor governments, is an essential element in measures to curb such attacks.

21. In a number of countries, refugee children are detained because of their own illegal entry or as a consequence of the detention of one or both of their parents. In 1986, the Executive Committee adopted Conclusion No. 43 (XXXVII) on Detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, which lays down the limited circumstances in which refugees and asylum-seekers may be detained for illegal entry. This Conclusion might be taken as also applying to refugee children, even though they are not specifically mentioned; in principle, however, refugee children should not be detained in connection with illegal entry.

22. In many situations, refugee children suffer psychological and social harm in addition to physical violence. Particular attention has been drawn to this in a recent UNICEF report10 which points out that the most common form of damage results from children being separated, temporarily or permanently, from one or both parents. In some cases, children may have been witnesses or victims of direct hostilities and gruesome atrocities, which frequently give rise to guilt feelings and adjustment problems long after. They may witness the harassment, abduction or torture of parents, the destruction of their homes, or the bombing of their communities. Remedial treatment for refugee children who have suffered violence should also take such psychological and social harm into account.

(c) Registration

23. In order to ensure that refugee children can now, and later in life, establish their date and place of birth, prove their nationality and deal with other matters of personal status, their birth in the country of asylum must be registered. A number of countries of asylum provide for the registration of the birth of refugee children through the regular national procedures, or through special procedures for refugees. The latter may be administered by national or regional authorities, local administrators, non-governmental organizations or by the refugees themselves. In some countries these procedures exist for urban refugees but not for rural refugees. In still others, however, no registration procedures exist, and their absence result in serious difficulties in establishing personal status.

24. It is essential that refugee children be registered in order to overcome these problems and to develop and implement policies and programmes for their benefit. The importance of registration is recognized in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.11 In line with the principles set out in this instrument, States should ensure that the birth of every refugee child born on its territory is registered immediately.

(d) Statelessness

25. Many of today's refugee children are stateless, either because they have been born to stateless parents or because of conflicting national laws concerning the attribution of nationality. Statelessness affects thousands of refugee children world wide and causes hardship in many areas of daily life. Every effort should be made to ensure that these children acquire a nationality: for example, the nationality of the country of durable asylum as soon as possible after their admission or upon birth there, or the nationality of a country where they have resided for a considerable period of time. The 1966 International Covenant or Civil and Political Rights declares in Article 24(3) that every child has the right to acquire a nationality. The importance of this right has also been recognized in the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which provides for the grant of nationality to a person who would otherwise be stateless, at birth, by operation of law or upon application. The 1973 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness elaborated by the International Commission on Civil Status provides in Article 1 that a child who would otherwise be stateless, acquires at birth the nationality of the mother, if the mother has the nationality of a State party to the Convention. The incidence of statelessness among refugee children needs increased attention by governments.

(e) Particularly vulnerable groups of refugee children

26. Some groups of refugee children face specific risks, particularly those who are: (i) unaccompanied, (ii) separated from their parents, (iii) disabled, and (iv) those who have been in refugee camps for extended periods.

(i) Unaccompanied refugee children

27. Unaccompanied refugee children are those who are separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, has responsibility to do so. They are especially vulnerable and, as recognized in several international instruments, require special care and attention.12 Besides identifying and documenting them, efforts must be undertaken to trace their parents or families with a view to family reunion where appropriate. Such tracing takes place in a number of situations, consistent with the views of the Executive Committee which, in Conclusion No. 24 (XXXII) on Family Reunification, stated that:

"7. ... Every effort should be made to trace the parents or other close relatives of unaccompanied minors before their resettlement. Efforts to clarify their family situation with sufficient certainty should also be continued after resettlement. Such efforts are of particular importance before an adoption - involving a severance of links with the natural family - is decided upon."

Much of the tracing is carried out by the tracing service of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which, for example, opened 13,581 cases concerning Kampucheans between 1979 and 1986 as a result of which 12,097 persons were located.

28. UNHCR experience in a number of refugee situations has shown that the following basic needs must be met in the case of unaccompanied refugee children. In the emergency phase, they must be immediately placed under adult care, e.g. a family, an existing community service or an especially established child-welfare service. Interim foster placements, based on individual assessments of need, should be arranged as quickly as possible, to meet basic physical and developmental requirements as well as the possibility of subsequent family reunification. Family care within the child's own community should be the first placement option considered, particularly for younger children. If this is not possible, group care within the child's community may be employed. Whatever placement is considered the most appropriate, it is essential that siblings be kept together. The type of placement chosen should depend upon the needs of the individual child, the degree of maturity and the circumstances of separation. It is recognized that family care is of primary importance for children under the age of five because of their emotional and psychological developmental needs.

29. A key problem for unaccompanied refugee children is the search for an appropriate durable solution - voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement. In seeking such solutions, regard should be given to the principles of family unity and the best interests of the child. The latter requires that decisions on durable solutions for unaccompanied refugee children be taken by competent expert bodies. Cases must be thoroughly assessed on an individual basis. The procedure should permit the effective participation of the refugee child and, as with status determination, arrangements may be made for him or her to be represented. Where possible, the views of the parents or others in loco parentis should be obtained.

30. The best durable solution for an unaccompanied refugee child will depend, of course, on the particular circumstances of his or her case, in the light of the principles of family unity and best interests of the child. The possibility of voluntary repatriation should at all times be kept under review and actively pursued whenever appropriate. Where this is not possible, local integration or resettlement should be envisaged. The principles of family unity and best interests of the child should be taken into account when dealing with the special situation of "anchor" cases, which has arisen in South-East Asia.

31. UNHCR has developed guidelines for the use of Field Offices concerning the pursuit of durable solutions. These note that unaccompanied refugee children over the age of 15 are generally sufficiently mature to take their own decisions regarding durable solutions. Depending on their degree of maturity, children over the age of nine or 10 may be able to make rational choices about durable solutions if provided with adequate information; their preferences should therefore receive appropriate consideration. Children below nine or 10 years of age may not be sufficiently mature to make an independent judgement; they should be given the opportunity to express their views, but the competent decision-making authority must determine which durable solution is likely to be in the best interests of the child.13 These are general guidelines only, and in each case a minor's mental maturity must be determined in the light of personal, family and cultural background.

32. Any durable solution for unaccompanied refugee children may involve the question of adoption. As noted in Executive Committee Conclusion No. 24 (XXXII) on Family Reunification, adoption involves the "severance of links with the natural family". It is generally recognized that adoption should not be encouraged as long as the family situation of an unaccompanied refugee child has not been satisfactorily determined.14 Many unaccompanied children, in fact, have living parents or close relatives with whom they can one day be reunited. As a general rule, two years is considered a minimum period for tracing relatives and for investigating any claims made for a child.

(ii) Children living with families other than their own

33. Some refugee children separated from their parents live in the care of an adult, who may or may not be a family member; such arrangements are normal in many cultures and should be respected. The children, however, may also have special needs, e.g. in the tracing of parents and other family members. Families which have accepted the burden of caring for additional children may themselves require attention and support, particularly those headed by single parents or those with large numbers of children. In some exceptional cases, intervention has been necessary to prevent the exploitation of children living with families other than their own.

(iii) Disabled refugee children

34. Within all refugee populations, there are significant numbers of disabled refugee children for whom preventive action, special assistance and rehabilitation are needed. Preventive action includes proper nutrition, immunization, appropriate medical services and safety measures. As a general principle, disabled children should receive treatment and rehabilitation to facilitate their integration into the educational, training, cultural, social and recreational activities provided for refugee children at large, and in their new communities once a durable solution is found. In a number of countries, disabled refugee children have access to national rehabilitation services. In others, special arrangements have been made outside the national system for disabled refugees generally or on a case-by-case basis; these include mechanisms for referral and treatment, and involve the co-operation of national authorities, UNHCR and non-governmental organizations. There are many situations, however, in which national health and education services still do not meet the needs of disabled refugee children.

35. The community-based rehabilitation approach and material developed by WHO offer the possibility of providing rehabilitation services to many children in large-scale refugee situations. Co-ordination with other international organizations, such as UNICEF and UNESCO, has also proved to be beneficial in this area.

36. Many disabled refugee children find durable solutions under regular resettlement programmes. Several schemes have also been created by UNHCR in co-operation with a number of countries, to promote the resettlement of refugees, including children, who are disabled, medically-at-risk or who have been the victims of torture. The "Ten or More" plan, created in 1973 and increased in 1984 to the "Twenty or More" plan, together with other special programmes, give highest priority to children who are disabled or torture victims. While many have been resettled through these measures, many more still await assistance. Wider participation in the "Twenty or More" plan is required so that durable solutions can be found for more disabled refugee children, in particular for those who are mentally retarded or suffer from mental disorders and often languish in refugee camps for years, alone or with their families.

(iv) Children staying for extended periods in camps

37. Many of today's refugee situations have "stagnated", as a result of which refugees have been forced to remain in the artificial environment of camps for years on end. Refugee children are restricted in their freedom of movement and grow up dependent upon care and maintenance support, often living in poor conditions with little to keep them occupied. The situation and day-to-day occupations of parents change, leaving children disoriented and with their traditional role models gone. Children may also be exposed to depression and anxiety within the family, caused by extended stays in camps and, in some situations, by the failure of the family to be accepted for resettlement. Extended stays in camps often lead to extremes of behaviour in children, who become either passive and submissive, or aggressive and violent. There have been reports of vandalism, rape and assault by refugee children. Refugee children sometimes face serious adaptation problems when they finally leave the camp. This is especially true for those who have been born in camps and who have spent their entire life there.

38. Attempts have been made to address some of these problems. Living conditions within the camp have been improved; educational facilities have been extended; models of previous everyday life have been duplicated, e.g., through allowing home-gardening; workshops, cultural, creative and recreational activities have been provided; social counsellors have been appointed; and excursions outside the camp have been organized. Despite the efforts undertaken on both the national and international levels, many problems remain. Refugee camps do not represent a "natural community" within which to grow up and develop normally; lengthy stays in camps must therefore be avoided, and durable solutions for refugee children found with the least possible delay.

(f) Needs of refugee children in the areas of nutrition and health, education, and religious, cultural and recreational activities

(i) Nutrition and health

39. Refugee children living in camps, whether or not part of a vulnerable group, face nutritional and health risks due to over-crowding, poverty and the type and quantity of food available. These risks exist both during the emergency phase and in the long term.

40. It is essential that food provided to refugees be of a form that allows children to be weaned correctly. It must also be nutritionally balanced to prevent and protect children from deficiencies and disease and to permit their physical and intellectual growth. In many refugee camps, however, the nutritional needs are not adequately met, often because of a dependency on external forms of food aid assistance which, while appropriate for adults, do not meet the needs of growing children. For example, they may be only provided with whole grains and not with oil and beans; the latter are necessary, respectively, to meet their energy needs and permit correct physical growth of bones, muscle and the brain. Fuel shortage and deforestation can also result in children being fed only once or twice a day.

41. Extended relief poses particular nutritional difficulties for the refugee child. The diet is normally a mixture of basic donated commodities, usually cereal grains, pulses and oil. These are essential but, unless supplemented by fresh food, the ration lacks the vitamins and minerals necessary to provide protection against disease. UNHCR supports arrangements for refugees to supplement their diet, through kitchen gardens or income-generating projects to provide funds for the local purchase of fresh foods. Kitchen gardens are not always possible, however, owing to government policies or the lack of sufficient water or land; limitations on the movement of refugees sometimes prohibit them from making local purchases. Over the last decade, a restricted and unvaried food aid ration has led refugee children to suffer from beriberi, scurvy and severe anaemia; these diseases are preventable if a balanced diet is provided. It is essential that the dietary needs of refugee children be accurately assessed and that donor countries and countries of asylum work together with UNHCR to ensure that they are met.

42. In some cases, children in a refugee camp become dependent upon foreign commodities (such as baby and infant food or milk powder), which replace traditional foods but are not accessible or affordable once relief programmes are over. Certain foods may be dangerous in a refugee camp, e.g., dried skimmed milk (DSM) powder, which is sometimes used as a breast milk substitute to feed infants. Given the insanitary environment of a camp this often leads to diarrhoea and loss of appetite with consequent malnutrition, and sometimes death. Control of the distribution of certain donated foodstuffs, such as DSM, is therefore essential in order to protect children.

43. The health needs of refugee children are also of fundamental importance. Primary health care facilities to prevent communicable diseases, geared towards children and their mothers, exist in a number of countries. They are being improved upon and included in health programmes in more and more countries of asylum.

44. Access to immunization is essential. Although difficult to document accurately, child deaths due to measles during the emergency phase of refugee movements in the past two decades number some tens of thousands. As the result of a research project funded by UNHCR, an emergency measles immunization kit has now been developed. It can be despatched immediately to emergency situations, thus saving the lives of refugee children. UNHCR i s expanding its participation in joint immunization projects with various national Ministries of Health and with UNICEF and WHO; these projects also cover oral rehydration services to refugee children. Continued efforts in the primary health care and immunization areas are necessary, however, as many refugee children benefit from neither.

(ii) Education

45. No aspect of a refugee child's life and development is spared from the effect of becoming a refugee. This includes the fundamental need and universally accepted right to education.15 Millions of children should not be deprived of an education as a result of becoming a refugee if detrimental effects on the development of their abilities, individual judgement and sense of moral and social responsibility are to be avoided.

46. Article 22 of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention provides:

"(1) The Contracting States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education.

(2) The Contracting States shall accord to refugees treatment as favourable as possible, and in any event not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances, with respect to education other than elementary education and, in particular, as regards access to studies, the recognition of foreign school certificates, diplomas and degrees, the remission of fees and charges and the award of scholarships."

47. As in other domains, educational assistance to refugee children must be based on a timely and sound assessment of their needs by competent authorities, which should begin in the emergency phase and be regularly updated. The assessment should take into account the fact that all refugee children should have access to a satisfactory level of education, to activities related to their cultural identity, to an understanding of the country of asylum and to practically-oriented knowledge concerning the development of the economic life of their own communities.

48. Following the assessment of educational needs, appropriate programmes should be designed and implemented, wherever possible with the participation of the refugee community itself. In some cases, programmes can be established within the framework of national education systems and provision be made to maintain the language and culture of the refugees; where integration in the national system is not possible, e.g. when refugee children are not fluent in the language of instruction, alternative systems will be necessary. When programmes have been established, it is essential that refugee children be issued with recognized certificates upon completion of their courses.

49. International assistance will be necessary whenever countries of asylum cannot provide for the education of refugee children. UNHCR currently contributes to primary education in a number of countries and towards the building and maintenance of schools, school equipment, educational supplies, teacher-training and salaries, uniforms, transport and school fees. In some countries, special efforts have been made to facilitate access to primary education projects by girls and to reach a balanced sex ratio in such programmes. In 1987, 81 UNHCR assistance projects benefit some 320.000 children at the primary level in rural areas. Refugee children, particularly in urban areas, may also receive primary education without UNHCR assistance. Even with these efforts many do not enjoy such opportunities.

50. While the focus for refugee children has been on primary education, a number of governments and non-governmental organizations, in some cases with UNHCR assistance, provide other forms of educational activities, including preschool education, skill training, language training (language of country of durable solution), cultural orientation, health education and post-primary formal education. At post-primary level, 110 UNHCR projects benefit nearly 20,000 students, including children at lower secondary level.

51. The provision of appropriate educational opportunities to refugee children can be a key factor in their development and in their successful integration, either back in their national community or in a new one. Educational programmes should thus be expanded and improved upon. it is essential that efforts be made to ensure that all refugee children have access to primary education.

(iii) Religious, cultural and recreational activities

52. Religious, cultural and recreational needs of refugee children have been addressed to a much lesser extent than food, shelter, health and educational requirements. In some situations, the religious and cultural practices of refugees differ from those of the local population in the country of asylum. Even if there is no mistreatment or discrimination, the social environment may not provide a favourable context for their religious and cultural practices. In some cases, separation from ethnic groups can preclude adherence to former cultural behaviour patterns. Problems have also arisen within refugee communities, resulting from the adoption of religious and cultural practices of the country of asylum. In addition, refugee parents are often fearful that their children will lose their religion, culture and language. The importance of meeting the special needs of children in this area is recognized in several international instruments.16 Some steps have been taken by Governments, UNHCR, non-governmental organizations and refugees themselves to address these problems. The policies of multi-culturalism adopted by some States benefit refugee communities in countries of asylum, and the establishment of associations by refugee communities themselves has also assisted in maintaining religious affiliation and culture.

53. Refugee children often have no means to satisfy their recreational requirements, whether in physical or intellectual activities. In some cases, this is aggravated by their confinement to a refugee camp where the resulting idleness can have significant detrimental effects.

54. While some measures have been taken to meet the recreational, religious and cultural requirements of refugee children much remains to be done. This is essential for their emotional stability and development.

(g) Social and cultural integration in the country of durable asylum

55. During the process of achieving a durable solution, refugee children may often face problems of integration. In many cases, the cultural and social background of the refugee child conflicts with the culture of the country of refuge or asylum. Refugee children who have stayed for extended periods in amps, without exposure to the cultural and social patterns that exist in their country of origin, may also face serious difficulties in adjusting to a new society. As a result, they may suffer from depression, feelings of loss, guilt and punishment.

56. In a number of countries, educational and cultural programmes have been established to facilitate integration. Experience in the implementation of these programmes has shown that, to be successful, special allowances must be made for the refugee child's cultural and social background. It is suggested that States pay more attention to this problem and exchange information on their experiences.

Summary and conclusions

57. Refugee children constitute approximately one-half of the world's refugee population. They have special problems in the areas of protection, assistance and durable solutions resulting from their precarious situation. It is therefore essential that children be among the first to receive protection and assistance. This support must be the best possible under the circumstances, with due regard being given to the standards enjoyed by the local population. UNHCR's experience over the years has demonstrated that effective protection and assistance action on behalf of refugee children requires that they be identified and documented as quickly as possible. Their needs must then be assessed and regularly reviewed by qualified personnel. If practicable, the needs of refugee children should be assessed on an individual basis, as the age, personality, family and cultural background can affect the reaction of the child and the appropriate treatment and solutions. In large refugee populations, where individual assessment is not possible, sample surveys to project the needs of children at large can be used. Once assessed, the needs should be met through culturally appropriate responses. The effectiveness of assessment and responses can be significantly increased if the refugee community itself is actively involved.

58. The plight of refugee children requires the urgent attention of governments, UNHCR and non-governmental agencies. Further study and understanding of their situation is necessary in order to redefine and reorient existing programmes and, where necessary, to establish new ones to meet their specific problems.

59. It is generally recognized that action taken on behalf of refugee children should be guided by the principle of the best interests of the child and by the principle of family unity.

60. Children who are accompanied by their parents should be granted refugee status if the head of the family is determined to be a refugee. Appropriate procedures should be adopted for determining the status of unaccompanied refugee children; their situation calls for a careful examination of their case, bearing in mind the need to grant the benefit of the doubt.

61. Violations of the physical safety and security of refugee children which occur in different areas of the world are to be deplored. In many instances refugee children are exposed to physical violence, exploitation, forced recruitment, and detention. Along with other refugees, they continue to be victims of military or armed attacks and piracy. Further action on the national and international levels is essential to prevent such violations, to assist the victims, and to provide treatment for resulting psychological and social harm.

62. Refugee children, in principle, should not be subject to detention in connection with illegal entry.

63. Although some States have taken measures to register refugee children and certain States grant their nationality to stateless refugee children, these practices are not universal. Such universality is desirable in order to stop refugee children facing difficulties of an administrative nature in everyday life, e.g. establishment of their date and place of birth and the determination of their nationality.

64. Unaccompanied refugee children should be identified at an early stage, their needs should be assessed by qualified personnel and placement facilities provided, where possible and appropriate, through family care within the refugee community. Efforts to trace parents or families should be undertaken immediately. Decisions on durable solutions for unaccompanied refugee children should be taken by competent expert bodies with appropriate participation of the refugee child. In line with Executive Committee Conclusion No. 24 (XXXII) on Family Reunification, the adoption of unaccompanied refugee children should not be encouraged as long as the family situation has not been satisfactorily determined.

65. Children separated from their parents and living with an adult, who may or may not be a family member, frequently have special needs such as support for the person or family caring for them, prevention of exploitation and tracing of parents or other relatives.

66. In a number of countries programmes exist which are geared to preventive action, special assistance and rehabilitation for disabled refugee children. In addition, several countries, through the "Twenty or More" Plan or other arrangements, provide for the resettlement of disabled refugee children as appropriate. International and national efforts in these areas should be increased to assist such children, and account be taken of the needs of mentally disturbed refugee children.

67. In many situations, refugee children face extended stays in camps because the international community is unable to solve particular refugee problems. The resulting detrimental effects on these children have been addressed to a limited extent by States, non-governmental organizations and UNHCR. More action is necessary, but a complete answer lies only in durable solutions for refugee children and in solutions to the refugee problems themselves.

68. Children living in refugee camps face particular nutritional and health risks. Efforts should be made to ensure that they receive an adequate and well-balanced diet, and that they are not exposed to foodstuffs which may be dangerous for them. Access to general immunization programmes and primary health care facilities, geared towards preventive services for children and their mothers, is essential.

69. Because of their situation, refugee children are often deprived of their fundamental right to education. Whereas some action has been taken to meet their educational needs, more efforts are necessary to ensure that, as far as possible, all refugee children have access to primary education of a satisfactory quality, which is oriented towards their cultural identity and understanding of the country of asylum.

70. The importance of meeting the special religious, cultural and recreational needs of refugee children is becoming generally recognized. The adoption of programmes and policies to meet these needs is essential in order to ensure the emotional stability and development of refugee children.

71. Refugee children may face integration problems in the country of durable solution. When programmes are established to facilitate their adjustment to the new society, special allowance has to be made for the refugee children's social and cultural background.


1 See the 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Preamble: "Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give ... " and Principle 1: "The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually."; the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25(2): "Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.."; the 1959 UN General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of the Child, Preamble: " ... the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection.."; the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 24(1): "Every child shall have, without any discrimination as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property or birth, the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State."; the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 10(3): "Special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons.."; the United Nations Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 14(1): "The States Parties to the present Convention recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development."

2 See also the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, Article 18(3); the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, Article 19; the 1961 European Social Charter, Articles 7, 8 and 17.

3 E. Ressler, N. Boothby, D. Steinbeck, Unaccompanied Children, Care and Placement in Wars, Natural Disasters and Refugee Movements, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987.

4 Study on Research on trauma amongst refugee children, a project conducted by the International Catholic Child Bureau in collaboration with UNHCR and a number of agencies.

5 The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, following a proposal by the Polish Government in 1978, is preparing a Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention will be based on the 1959 United Nations General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of the Child and on other international instruments setting out norms for the protection of children's rights. The Working Group has adopted a number of articles, some of which are referred to in this Note. While work on the Convention will probably not be completed before the end of 1988, the draft articles mentioned in the Note indicate the trend of international thinking respecting the rights of children.

6 See the 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child, Principle 2; the 1965 Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law and Recognition of Decrees relating to Adoptions, Article 6, (The Hague Conference on Private International Law); the 1980 Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, Preamble and Chapter II Articles 6-7, (The Hague Conference on Private International Law); the 1986 United Nations Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with Special Reference to Foster Placement and Adoption Nationally and Internationally, Part A, Article 5; the United Nations Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3.

7 E. Ressler, N. Boothby, D. Steinbeck, Unaccompanied Children, Care and Placement in Wars, Natural Disasters and Refugee Movements, Part III, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987.

8 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Principle 2.

9 See the 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child, Principle 6; the 1949 Geneva Convention IV, Article 82; the 1977 Protocol II, Article 74; the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 23.

10 UNICEF, Children in Situations of Armed Conflict, UN Doc. E/ICEF/1986/CRP.2

11 Article 24(2): "Every child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name".

12 See the 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Principle II; the 1949 Geneva Convention IV, Article 24; the 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, Principle 6; the 1961 Hague Convention on the Protection of Infants, Article 4; the 1986 United Nations Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with Special Reference to Footer Placement and Adoption Nationally and Internationally, Part A, Article 4; the United Nations Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 10.

13 See also E. Ressler, N. Boothby, D. Steinbeck, Unaccompanied Children, Care and Placement in Wars, Natural Disasters and Refugee Movements, Part III, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987.

14 This is in line with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 41/85 adopting the "Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with Special Reference to Foster Placement and Adoption Nationally and Internationally" of 3 December 1986 (A/RES/41/85); this reiterates that the paramount consideration in placement and adoption should be the best interests of the child and no intercountry adoption should be considered before it has been established that the child is legally free for adoption.

15 The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26(1): "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory ...

16 See the Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 17(2): "The States Parties to the present Convention shall respect and promote the right of the child to fully participate in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity."; the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 27: "In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language".