Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Children: The Invisible Generation

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Children: The Invisible Generation
Refugees (111, I - 1998)

1 March 1998
Millions of children live in a nightmare world.

They've been killed and exploited in their millions, but until recently no-one appeared to be listening

By Maya Ameratunga

The statistics are almost unimaginable. Two million slaughtered and six million injured or permanently disabled in the last decade alone. Many more millions died of starvation and disease. Untold numbers raped, tortured, brutalised and abused. The centre of this world, according to one report, is "a desolate moral vacuum devoid of the most basic human values" in which "nothing is spared, held sacred or protected." This is a place inhabited by children, many of them refugee children.

The global community has often been ambivalent towards babies, adolescents and teenagers. While many societies have nurtured and protected their young, children for centuries have also been exploited and abused. In recent decades, especially in the frightening world of peoples ripped from their homes and trying to reach a safe haven, this unstable balance has tilted even further against the young. Especially in regions gripped by war, the exercise today is "to target the population, mainly women and children, to displace them, humiliate them, destroy them," says Olara Otunna, special UN representative for Children in Armed Conflict.

Governments and international institutions have, at last, begun to grapple with this crisis. In late 1996 the United Nations issued a devastating report on the "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children" which for the first time pulled together in one comprehensive study the complex nightmare world in which millions of children live. Using the report as a base, humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR have begun reorientating policies they admit have been inadequate, and placing more emphasis on programmes specifically targetting the young.

The majority of refugees in the world are children. In an 'average' refugee population anywhere in the world, at least 50 percent are youngsters, a figure which rises to 70 percent in some situations. The number of child refugees is increasing by an estimated 5,000 per day, swelling the overall population of more than 22 million people UNHCR already cares for.

But while they number in the millions, children have been largely ignored as a specific group. "The underlying explanation of our failures toward refugee children is that we simply do not see them," says Iain Levine, who has worked with children in emergency situations for many years. "Children are invisible, unconsulted, unheard." Humanitarian agencies tended to see children as simply dependents without any special needs and consequently lack the programmes and the expertise in such fields as health, nutrition and education to care adequately for adolescents, Levine said. And while the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most comprehensive of any international legal document in existence, its provisions are often not enforced, he said

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata has instructed all UNHCR field offices to draw up individual action plans covering five key areas: the needs of children, sexual violence and exploitation of minors, education, recruitment of child soldiers and the problems of separated minors. The agency has deployed six special senior advisers for children to Africa, Europe, Central Asia and countries of the former Soviet Union to help reshape UNHCR's overall approach. In cooperation with the Save the Children Alliance, training programmes for humanitarian, government and NGO personnel are being expanded.

The United States, Nordic and other countries are providing seed money for some of these activities. The U.S. Congress earmarked $5 million for new refugee children's programmes and Washington has made it clear efforts in these areas should be progressively expanded. Sweden, a longtime champion of childrens rights, made international protection for young people a top priority this year.

Norway has traditionally supported education and will soon devote 20 percent of all its foreign aid to this field. Such support is vitally needed. Only 25 percent of refugee children receive any meaningful education, causing grave concern that millions of deprived youngsters will eventually become not only an 'invisible generation' but also a 'lost generation' without the educational skills to survive in an increasingly complex and demanding world.

If refugees are the most vulnerable group among the world's downtrodden, then refugee children and their mothers are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. During flight, they are often the first to die on the road, victims of disease and exhaustion. They are sexually exploited and many young girls are forced into prostitution. An estimated 250,000 youngsters have been dragooned into becoming fighters in civil wars across the globe. Children in at least 68 countries live amidst the threat of 110 million landmines.

Says Olara Otunna, "Value systems are being destroyed everywhere and an ethical vacuum created." In many areas of the world "anything goes ... women, children, crops, stories, livestock, everything goes." Adds Devaki Jain, who helped draft the U.N. report: "Children are dropping out of childhood. We must envision a society free of conflict, where children can grow up as children, not weapons of war."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)