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Progress Report on Refugee Children and Adolescents, including UNHCR's Strategy for Follow-Up to the Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

Executive Committee Meetings

Progress Report on Refugee Children and Adolescents, including UNHCR's Strategy for Follow-Up to the Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

9 April 1997

9 April 1997

7th Meeting


1. Safeguarding the well-being of refugee children and adolescents has long been a high priority of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. Its first conclusion devoted exclusively to young people in 1987, (Conclusion No. 47), was followed by child-focused conclusions in 1989, (Conclusion No. 59), and 1994, (Report of the Forty-Fifth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, A/AC.96/839, para. 23).

2. UNHCR, always concerned about the welfare of refugee children, has been increasingly attentive to the special needs of the youngest refugees. The establishment of the post of the Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children in 1992 was a significant step toward improving the Office's protection of and assistance to minors. In 1993, the UNHCR Policy on Refugee Children1, which applies to all persons of concern to the Office under 18 years of age, was adopted. Under this Policy, the Office's primary goal in regard to refugee children and adolescents is to ensure their protection and healthy development. The Policy also acknowledges that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) serves as UNHCR's "normative frame of reference." In 1995, the establishment of a Regional Support Unit for Refugee Children in the Great Lakes region of Africa enhanced interagency cooperation on behalf of children and adolescents.

3. As the first major step in implementing the Policy, UNHCR completely revised its guidelines, issuing, in 1994, the handbook Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care. The Guidelines adopt a human rights perspective using the articles in the CRC to set UNHCR's standards. The Guidelines also follow the three-pronged approach to protection and care. The needs of minors are met by a combination of actions, some of which are directed personally to them as individuals, some to their families, and others to their communities.

4. In the introduction to the revised Guidelines, the High Commissioner wrote: "The ultimate value of the UNHCR Policy and Guidelines on Refugee Children will lie in their translation from words to concrete action." The Guidelines expressly recognize the role of the Executive Committee in achieving this goal.

"Furthermore, the Guidelines will be a starting point for dialogue with UNHCR's Executive Committee and donor States on refugee children and adolescents. What are the problems in implementing the Guidelines? What more needs to be done? By whom? How?"2

5. This paper is intended to further UNHCR's dialogue with the Executive Committee. The report provides an update of UNHCR's activities to further implement its policy and guidelines; it also sets out UNHCR's strategy for follow-up to the United Nations study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (A/51/306, 26 August 1996), hereafter referred to as the Machel Study.


6. One topic to be considered in this dialogue is the "invisibility" of refugee children and adolescents, which is a problem that affects all aspects of policy making and operations. Field Offices report that a majority of refugees are under the age of 18 years. Overall, children and adolescents make up 52 per cent of the persons assisted by UNHCR, with the figures moving up to between 60 and 66 per cent in a number of refugee situations (Populations of Concern to UNHCR: A Statistical Overview, 31 December 1995, UNHCR, July 1996). This age group is entitled to "special care and assistance" under the CRC and the UNHCR Policy on Refugee Children. Failure to meet their special needs will affect not just a few, but the majority of persons of concern to the Office.

7. There are three factors in particular that contribute to the tendency to overlook the special needs and rights of refugee children and adolescents during policy making and operations. First, there is a tendency to think of refugees as a uniform group. In response to this problem, the UNHCR Policy on Refugee Children insists that actions must be "tailored to the different needs and potentials of refugee children". Children and adolescents are entitled to special attention because their needs, and their legal status and social status, can be significantly different from those of adults, and from each other as well, due to age-related developmental differences. The need and the right to a family, to education, and to protection from exploitation and abuse are some of the aspects of their lives that require special attention.

8. Second, when there is a differentiation between children and adults, there is a tendency to think of young people simply as dependants of adults. Dependency is one important characteristic of childhood and adolescence, but the tendency to define minors only as dependants fails to take into account that they are individuals with needs and rights that are additional to those of adults.

9. The third problem is the "invisibility" of adolescents. As is pointed out in the Guidelines, using "child" to refer to everyone under the age of 18 runs contrary to common usage. "Adolescent" is the standard term for persons of 15 to 17 years of age. One of the important findings of the Machel Study is the degree to which the needs and rights of adolescents are being neglected. It should be recognized that the needs and capacities of teenagers are fundamentally different from those of infants and older children. Reproductive health, vocational training, acquiring life skills, and income-generation opportunities are key issues which should be addressed to improve the prospects for adolescent refugees.

10. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is of critical importance in promoting the welfare of young people. By recognizing their rights, the Convention recognizes their claim to a fair share of resources. As UNHCR's normative frame of reference, the Convention on the Rights of the Child has important implications for the Office's budgets, staffing and programming. The primary operational objective for UNHCR is to ensure that the needs and rights of children and adolescents are integrated into all of UNHCR's programmes. New intiatives to address these concerns are intended to accomplish the mainstreaming of protection and assistance that meets the needs of refugee children and adolescents.


11. The following paragraphs update UNHCR's report to the Executive Committee in 1995, Implementation of UNHCR's Policy and Guidelines on Refugee Children. (EC/SC.2/78, 20 September 1995.)

A. Health and Nutrition

12. The overall health and nutrition situation of refugee children and adolescents remains much the same as reported in 1995, although malnutrition has significantly increased in some of the long-established refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Furthermore, refugees in several areas are suffering from preventable diseases such as scurvy and beriberi because of reliance on food aid rations that are poor in vitamins and iron. Eradication of these micronutrient deficiencies depends largely on technological advances in food enrichment. Progress in resolving this problem is being made. UNHCR advocates the provision of fortified foods, (usually in the form of blended foods), and is working with other organizations on studies and pilot projects. The development of a new milk formula, "SF100", has proven successful in therapeutic feeding centres. International information-sharing of health-related developments has also improved.

13. A solid foundation has been laid for promoting reproductive health in a culturally sensitive manner. A wide range of initiatives are being considered to enhance reproductive health including: the promotion of responsible sexual behaviour of females and males; and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, unsafe abortions, genital mutilations, and premature marriages and other forms of sexual abuse and exploitation. The recommendations of a symposium on reproductive health in refugee situations, held in 1995, have been followed-up by an inter-agency working group. A field guide book and training video on reproductive health have been sent to all Field Offices. Two principal goals of UNHCR's activities in this area are to promote adolescent access to reproductive health services, and to involve adolescents in the planning and running of projects. An evaluation of reproductive health projects will be conducted in 1997.

B. Personal Liberty and Security

1. Military recruitment

14. One of the dangers for minors living in refugee camps in war zones is that they may be recruited into the military. If armed units do not respect the sanctuary of refugee camps, and if national and international authorities do not ensure camp neutrality, then UNHCR, which lacks the mandate and the capacity to enforce neutrality, is greatly limited in the protection of minors from forced recruitment. Furthermore, once any refugee voluntarily takes up arms, that person loses the right to receive UNHCR's protection.

15. Military recruitment of minors is often clandestine. UNHCR sometimes receives information from human rights bodies and non-governmental agencies that under-aged recruitment is occurring in specific places. UNHCR attempts to follow-up such allegations, as for instance with the UNHCR Inspector's recent missions to examine this issue in Sri Lanka and the Horn of Africa. It was clear that the problem merits further study.

16. Because the major cause of refugee movements is war, military recruitment of minors is also of concern to UNHCR as a prevention issue. Under-aged solidiers are often used to perpetrate atrocities against civilian populations. Recruitment of minors is a highly exploitative practice, and is sometimes the precipitating cause of flight. UNHCR supports a ban on the recruitment of anyone under 18 years of age.

2. Sexual exploitation and abuse

17. The dominant pattern in today's wars is the targeting of civilians, and sexual violence against females is often used a method of warfare. Humanitarian responses to refugee emergencies must take this fact into account, and be prepared to provide emotional, social and medical assistance which is gender and age sensitive.

18. Community services officers can play a vital role in meeting these needs. As one inspection mission found, the reporting of sexual violence can have such adverse social effects that people who need help often do not seek it. As the "Women Victims of Violence" project in Kenya demonstrated, these social barriers can be significantly overcome by working with the community. (See, UNHCR's Women Victims of Violence Project in Kenya, EC/1995/SC.2/CPR.22, 8 June 1995.) The skills of mobilizing community action that an experienced community services worker brings to an emergency operation should make them an indispensable part of the emergency team.

19. Because of developmental differences, the medical, emotional, and social needs of girls who have been targets of sexual violence will not be identical to those of women in similar situations; these special needs must be recognized and addressed.

3. Developing solutions

20. Despite the obstacles, successful steps have been taken in some situations. In Goma, for example, it was found that hundreds of boys, separated from their families in Rwanda, were living with former military personnel, often acting as their servants and mascots. In an effort to assist them, UNHCR initiated a rehabilitation programme which was implemented by an NGO, Action, Youth and the Environment (AYE). The boys were separated from military families and placed in AYE's rehabilitation programme. They were organized into small groups that lived and worked together, building their own shelters, and doing their own cooking and other domestic chores. They received leadership training, engaged in vocational and community service projects, joined in group discussions, and took responsibility for peer discipline. Through these activities they learned independent living skills and how to resolve individual and group differences, thus regaining a measure of social stability.

21. The Goma project provided the boys with alternatives for their lives. As the Machel Study and other investigations have found, coercion is not the only cause of under-aged recruitment. Poverty, social pressure, the need for protection, idealism and adventurism are also part of the problem. With the assistance of community services workers, and supported by additional UNHCR funding, the programme evolved into a broader adolescent initiative which engaged thousands of male and female teenagers in active efforts to help themselves. One of their projects was an investigation of the sexual exploitation of adolescent girls in the refugee camp.

22. At the World Congress Against Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm in 1996, UNHCR chaired a workshop on Refugee and Internally Displaced Children. The Goma youth report on sexual exploitation was used as a basis for discussions at the workshop.

C. Education

23. UNHCR's assistance to education benefited over 700,000 refugee children and adolescents in asylum countries in 1996. This figure does not include refugee students enrolled at their own expense in public and private schools not supported by the Office. Only one fourth of UNHCR assisted refugees between the ages of 6 and 18 are currently attending school. Overall, the present situation remains similar to previous years.

24. Because of the high drop-out rate, the majority of refugee students are in the first few grades of primary school. Poverty and under-funding combine to reduce the effectiveness of available education. Over-crowded classrooms, inadequately trained teachers, lack of books, and poorly designed curricula make education an unattractive investment for many refugee students and their families.

25. Boys in school outnumber girls two to one. Field Offices are addressing this imbalance, but sex roles, and financial limitations - at the international, national, and family levels - result in slow progress towards gender equality. An even greater disparity exists between children and adolescents, with the latter group making up only a small percentage of refugee students. While national and international funding priorities are on primary education, the fact that a large percentage of teenagers are illiterate or lack a primary education is being overlooked.

26. As The State of the World's Refugees (1995)3 observed, there is a dual nature to refugee problems: the humanitarian dimension and the strategic dimension. Ensuring fulfilment of the CRC right to education is indeed a humanitarian obligation of the international community, but it is also a strategic imperative. Education is essential to political and economic development. These in turn are key elements in reintegration and prevention. The current practice of undervaluing education in the competition over resource allocations may prove to be destabilizing as adolescents become adults ill-equipped to assume their parental, citizenship and economic development roles. A widespread lack of knowledge about how to prevent the spread of AIDS or about how to protect the environment, for example, not only puts the individuals concerned at risk, but may have potentially disastrous effects at the national and international levels. In some places a teenager today may be a combatant tomorrow if constructive alternatives are not made available.

27. The Inspection and Evaluation Unit is currently finalizing a comprehensive report on refugee education. It is expected that it will stress the importance of adolescents receiving an education and the need for refugee schools to meet basic standards, such as smaller class size, availability of textbooks and materials and more teacher-training.

D. Unaccompanied Minors

28. UNHCR has three goals in relation to the problem of unaccompanied minors: prevent separations, reunify families, and insure care during the periods of separation. UNHCR's capacity to reach each of these objectives often depends on the early deployment of community services officers to mobilize the refugee community to assist in achieving these goals.

29. Early deployment of community services officers in the United Republic of Tanzania in 1994 led to the identification of 10,000 separated children and adolescents in less than one month. Since then, cooperative efforts between UNHCR, UNICEF, the ICRC and NGOs have resulted in more than 50,000 family reunifications throughout the Great Lakes region, the highest number of child-family reunifications ever recorded in an emergency. In the recent mass returns from Zaire and the United Republic of Tanzania to Rwanda, an additional 10,000 separated minors were identified. Over 75 per cent of these were promptly reunited, due in large part to a strategy of returning the minors directly to their communes of origin, rather than placing them in temporary centres.

30. During 1996, an Emergency Kit for Unaccompanied Children was developed by UNHCR and UNICEF in conjunction with the ICRC, Save the Children Fund, Rädda Barnen, and Food for the Hungry. The Emergency Kit contains emergency registration books, cameras and film, a Priority Action Handbook and other tools. Ten kits will soon be stockpiled for deployment in any emergency involving unaccompanied minors.

31. Since the 1995 report on refugee children to the Executive Committee, UNHCR has participated in three conferences on improving the protection and assistance capacities related to unaccompanied minors. In addition, UNHCR hosted a Symposium on Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum, which resulted in the Office publishing the Guidelines on Policies and Procedures in Dealing With Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum (1997). At the request of the General Assembly, UNHCR submitted a report, Assistance to Unaccompanied Refugee Minors, in 1996. (A/51/329, 5 September 1996.)

E. Operational Framework

1. Internal evaluation

32. UNHCR's Inspection and Evaluation Unit is conducting a major evaluation of the Office's protection and assistance initiatives on behalf of refugee children and adolescents. The assessment will cover emergencies, assistance programmes, and repatriation operations. The evaluation is being undertaken in partnership with the International Save the Children Alliance. Conclusions should be available in September 1997.

2. Memorandum of Understanding with UNICEF

33. In 1996, UNHCR and UNICEF signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which delineates the roles of the two organizations and provides a framework for cooperation. The MOU reflects both UNHCR's ultimate responsibility for the international protection and welfare of refugees and UNICEF's responsibilities and role within the country of origin. Under the MOU, UNICEF has assumed responsibility for providing measles vaccine and related equipment and supplies in new refugee situations, and assists national health authorities to provide the full Expanded Programme on Immunizations (EPI) services, where feasible, to refugee children and women. The MOU provides for situation specific agreements on its implementation, and these have been concluded in several countries.

3. Rädda Barnen Stand-by Agreement

34. The Stand-by Agreement with Rädda Barnen, which began in 1993, is designed to enhance UNHCR's capacity to deploy experienced community services officers on an emergency basis. During 1996 and the first quarter of 1997, there were six secondments to five locations under this Agreement. By being deployed early in emergencies and by using community-mobilizing techniques, these community services officers have had a significant impact in preventing the separation of children from their families, in facilitating reunifications, and in ensuring foster care. The Stand-by Agreement was recently used during the massive return of refugees from Zaire and the United Republic of Tanzania to Rwanda, where the secondment of two community services officers proved effective in helping to protect refugee children and adolescents.

4. Mainstreaming

35. The concerns of refugee children and adolescents are being incorporated into a number of activities at the Headquarters' level. For example, UNHCR regularly submits information to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on such matters as detention, citizenship, family reunification and education. It also participates in all of the Committee's "theme days." The Committee frequently makes recommendations to State parties for improving the respect for the rights of refugee minors, and these recommendations have been helpful to UNHCR Field Offices.

36. Sections dealing with the concerns of refugee children and adolescents have been incorporated into various manuals and guidelines, such as the training manual for protection officers (1995), the revised guidelines for educational assistance (1995), the revised community services manual (1996), the guidelines on detention of asylum seekers (1996), and the handbook on voluntary repatriation (1996). Their concerns will be integrated into the emergency handbook and resettlement handbook which are currently under revision, as well as in UNHCR's pending review of PARinAC. The recent in-house conference on prevention considered strategies to protect refugee children and adolescents. The Office also contributed to the revision of the Hague Convention regarding the protection of minors.

37. Despite these and other activities, insufficient progress has been made in mainstreaming the rights and welfare of minors into the delivery of protection and assistance at the field level. The Inspection and Evaluation Unit's report on lessons learnt in the Rwanda and Burundi emergencies noted the absence of early protection and assistance measures for children, and the absence of activities for adolescents. In addition, the concerns of children and adolescents are not consistently addressed in repatriation planning, nor in reports to Headquarters.

38. The Committee on the Rights of the Child frequently states that full respect for the CRC at the national level will require changes in attitudes. The "invisibility" of children and adolescents as persons with needs specific to their age must be ended if UNHCR's protection of and assistance to refugee minors are to meet the standards set by adopting the CRC as the Office's normative frame of reference.

F. Promoting Conflict Resolution and Peace Building

39. As UNHCR has increased its emphasis on reconciliation and prevention, it has not neglected the roles that adolescents, and even children, can play. Among the peace-building efforts that UNHCR has supported are: a "tolerance education" programme in schools in Kyrgyzstan; education for peace and conflict resolution - both interpersonal and intergroup - for refugee teenagers in Guinea; peace awareness activities in Côte d'Ivoire; conflict resolution activities in Kenya, and community-building activities in Rwanda.

40. In 1997, UNHCR held a Design Workshop on Peace Education, Conflict-Resolution and Human Rights in order to create a plan of action to expand these activities. A project proposal aimed at refugee children and adolescents, and which includes both school and community-based activities, is being circulated to donors.


41. UNHCR participated fully in the United Nations study led by Ms. Graça Machel, Expert of the Secretary-General on the impact of armed conflict on children. The Machel Study was submitted to the General Assembly in 1996 (Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, A/51/306 and its addendum A/51/306/Add.1).

42. The Machel Study points out that UNHCR is often first to respond to emergencies. The Office is therefore in a unique position to exercise leadership regarding humanitarian assistance to refugee children and adolescents. The Study also recommends that UNHCR enhance its response capacity in regard to the protection of refugee children and adolescents. This will entail the further development of a CRC-based, goal-oriented and child and adolescent-specific agenda within all phases of UNHCR operations.

43. As set forth below, UNHCR's follow-up strategy to the Machel Study defines performance objectives and the steps by which the objectives will be achieved.

A. Performance Objectives for UNHCR's Protection and Assistance of Refugee Children and Adolescents

1. Goals During Emergency Stage

(a) Initial phase of emergency response

(i) Critical health, nutrition and sanitation problems are identified and addressed.

(ii) Child-family separations are prevented, (for example, assuring that food distribution promotes family unity, and taking steps to see that care centres do not encourage abandonments).

(iii) Care is arranged for separated minors: they are searched for, identified, documented, and provided with alternate care.

(iv) In-camp reunifications are begun.

(v) CRC violations are identified and addressed, especially military recruitment and sexual exploitation.

(vi) Education and other CRC concerns are integrated into budgets and donor appeals.

(b) Second phase of emergency response

"Rapid education" and recreation programmes are available in all communities.

(i) Unaccompanied minors are placed with foster families or in group care, and that care is monitored.

(ii) Tracing and reunification are extended into country-wide and cross-border programmes.

(iii) Programmes are established to separate minors from the military and to protect minors from sexual exploitation and abuse.

2. Goals During Post-Emergency (Care and Maintenance) Stage

(i) Tracing programmes are fully operational and producing reunifications.

(ii) Basic education is available for both children and adolescents.

(iii) The majority of adolescents and older children are involved in meaningful activities (for instance, school, vocational training, leadership development, environmental and other community service projects).

(iv) Girls and boys receive reproductive health education and services.

(v) "Child-Watch Networks" promote the well-being of minors by identifying and correcting problems.

(vi) In the aftermath of violent displacement, the well-being of minors (developmental needs/ emotional health) is promoted through community-managed programmes.

(vii) Conflict-resolution and peace-building are incorporated into school and community-based activities.

(viii) Girls and boys will benefit equally from the above programmes; reasons for limited participation will be reported, assessed and acted upon.

3. Goals During Repatriation-Reintegration Stage

(a) Planning and preparation phase

(i) Assessments are made of children, adolescents and their families, including their needs, capacities and rights, and their concerns are integrated into the planning.

(ii) Landmine awareness campaigns are conducted when necessary before repatriation begins, and will include child-focused communication strategies.

(b) Return phase

Arrangements are made for the return of unaccompanied minors, including legal and personal documentation.

(c) Reintegration and self-reliance phase

(i) Reintegration programmes are tailored to meet the needs and rights of unaccompanied minors, included sibling-headed households.

(ii) The right to education is assured.

(iii) Adolescents, and former under-aged soldiers, are provided opportunities to reintegrate into society, (for example, through education, vocational training, apprenticeships, income-generation and environmental programmes).

(iv) In countries where landmines accidents are widespread, arrangements are made with the Government and NGOs for the rehabilitation of victims who are minors.

(v) The design of income-generation and other capacity-building programmes for the general community include the promotion of the health, nutrition and education of minors.

(vi) Refugee children and adolescents are involved in peace-building activities in their schools and communities.

(vii) Boys and girls will benefit equally from the above, and discrepancies will be monitored and acted upon.

B. Steps to Achieve Objectives

Meeting these objectives will require enhancing capacity through improvements in staffing, training and budgeting.

1. Staffing

(i) Community services officers will be deployed as a part of all emergency teams. The number of officers deployed will be based on the needs of each emergency.

(ii) In complex emergencies, specialists in education and in child and adolescent welfare will be deployed to support the community services officers.

(iii) Community services officers will be deployed in all stages in sufficient numbers to achieve the objectives.

(iv) Protection officers, community services officers, and other specialists will work together in community-support teams.

(v) A number of Senior Advisor positions will be created in 1997 to assist field operations in needs assessments, programme innovation, and in coordinating policies and programming on a regional basis. The Senior Advisors will also be trained in emergency responses.

2. Training

(i) UNHCR will develop a comprehensive training programme on child-adolescent rights and developmental needs. The programme will provide training for both UNHCR staff and staff of its implementing partners.

(ii) Three major capacity-building exercises are planned for the field in 1997.

3. Budgets

(i) Existing resources should be used more effectively to promote the well-being of children and adolescents.

(ii) A line item for "rapid education" will be included in future emergency response budgets.

(iii) UNHCR will establish a Trust Fund to strategically reorient programming for children and adolescents of concern to the Office.

4. Promoting the human rights of refugee children and adolescents

UNHCR's promotion of the CRC rights of refugee children and adolescents is part of the larger effort of the international community to promote human rights.

(a) International law reform

UNHCR will continue to support the call for a ban on landmines and for a protocol to raise the minimum age of military recruitment to 18 years.

(b) Special representative

UNHCR has indicated its tangible support for the proposal to appoint a special representative of the Secretary General on children and armed conflict, as recommended in the report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

(c) Promote the CRC and codes of conduct

UNHCR will promote the human rights of refugee children and adolescents in a broad range of fora, including support for a code of conduct for humanitarian workers.


44. UNHCR's strategy is not for the exclusive benefit of war-affected refugee children and adolescents. Most refugees are in fact war-affected, but regardless of the specific cause of refugee needs, the basic responses, in terms of staffing, training and budgeting, will be much the same. The strategy is, therefore, designed to protect and assist all refugees under the age of 18 years.

1 Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care, Annex A, page 163 (published by UNHCR in 1994). The UNHCR Policy on Refugee Children was submitted to the Executive Committee in October 1993 (EC/SCP/82).

2 Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care, Introduction, page 12.

3 The State of the World's Refugees, In Search of Solutions, Oxford University Press, 1995