"Investing in the Future" – Regional Conference on Protecting Refugee Children in the Middle East and North Africa. Introductory Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, 15 October 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to welcome you to this conference, the first of its kind in this region. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah. Under your leadership, Your Highness, Sharjah has become a leader in culture. I would also like to thank Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi of Sharjah, UNHCR's first Eminent Advocate, whose tireless advocacy for refugees has been remarkable, including in the preparation of this conference.
As Her Majesty said, global forced displacement is now at a level not seen since the end of the Second World War. Over 51 million people worldwide have been uprooted by conflict and persecution, and last year, more than 32,000 people were forced to flee every day - more than twice the daily figure only two years ago.
This region has been the hardest hit. Many countries from Mauritania to Yemen host important refugee populations. But the most challenging displacement crisis confronting today's world is of course the one triggered by the conflict in Syria and its dramatic spill-over into Iraq.
UNHCR has registered over 3.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, the largest refugee population under our mandate today. This influx has an enormous impact on the economies and societies of the receiving countries, and on the lives of ordinary people in the host communities. Public infrastructure, schools and hospitals are overcrowded across the region, and high unemployment, shrinking salaries and rising prices leave many members of the host population struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, Syrian refugees are becoming increasingly vulnerable, as their savings have long run out and many are about to enter their third or fourth winter in exile.
The generosity of Syria's neighbours must be matched by much stronger international support, to allow them to address the escalating demands placed on national services and infrastructures. These needs far exceed the resources, expertise and capacities of humanitarian organizations. Longer-term assistance by development actors, bilateral partners and international financial institutions is now required to address the massive structural impact of the current crisis.
True and effective burden-sharing also means that borders beyond the neighbouring states must be open for those fleeing violence and war. Just last week, I addressed the European Council of Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs in Luxembourg and insisted on the need to offer more legal avenues for Syrian refugees to reach Europe, including through resettlement and humanitarian admission, family reunification or more flexible visa policies. And during a visit to this region only last month, I had the opportunity to advocate for the well-being of Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Conflict and displacement are terrible experiences for anyone. But they pose the most serious risks to those who are the least able to protect themselves: children. They already make up half of the world's refugees, the highest proportion in over a decade. Here in this region, every single minute, another child is forced to flee his or her country.
The impact of forced displacement on children is enormous - sometimes with only a few hours' notice, they have to abandon everything they know: their homes and communities, their schools, their friends, their aspirations. Far too often, becoming a refugee also means leaving behind their childhood.
Many of the refugee children I have met experienced the violence and brutality of war, lost loved ones or were wounded themselves. They may have found shelter from the fighting across the border, but their life in exile is full of uncertainty and daily struggles. Many are separated from their families, have difficulties accessing basic services, and live in increasing poverty. Only one in two Syrian refugee children in the neighbouring countries is receiving education, and many receive only informal education short of required standards.
During my visit to Lebanon last month, I met a refugee family from Raqqa who found safety in the Bekaa valley. Neither of the parents can get work, and their 12-year-old daughter Rahaf is the only breadwinner for her family of seven. She picks vegetables for six hours every day, earning less than a dollar an hour.
We know that refugee children are at increased risk of child labour and recruitment, and more vulnerable to violence in their homes, communities or schools, including sexual and gender based violence. This is one of the reasons, along with financial difficulties, why more and more refugee parents agree to marry off their daughters as children. Maha in Jordan is one of them, having had to abandon her dreams of becoming a doctor when at age 13 she was married to a man ten years her senior. Now, still a child, she will soon be a mother.
Rahaf and Maha are just two examples, but there are many more, unfortunately.
And as refugees grow increasingly desperate, thousands of children attempt to move further afield, putting themselves at risk of abuse by smugglers and traffickers. Half of the over 20,000 children who have arrived by boat in southern Europe this year were unaccompanied. Hundreds of others drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The consequences of violence against children are serious, long-term and costly - for both the children affected and their societies. Protecting refugee children is a core priority for UNHCR, and doing this right requires the close cooperation of all stakeholders.
We must do better to keep refugee children safe - through giving them access to quality education, psycho-social care and targeted support for those with specific needs, and by ensuring they are registered at birth. But equally important is support to their families and communities so they can protect them better.
As displacement becomes more protracted, more investment is needed to support national child protection systems and services, provided by both government and national civil society organisations. This strategy has a dual benefit - it helps protect refugee children and also contributes to stronger and more sustainable systems that benefit all the children in a host country. This is a crucial element of addressing the impact of the crisis on local communities and host governments.
In everything we do, we must acknowledge the resilience, the strength and determination of refugee children. The most important way to do this is to listen to them - not only to understand their real needs, but also to engage them as equal partners in finding solutions to keep them safe and protect their rights.
Despite everything they have lived through, many refugee children and especially adolescents are extremely dynamic and resourceful, with a passion for achieving a better future for themselves and for their families. Ignoring the capacities and aspirations of these young people is a terrible mistake. Crises can also create opportunities, and the young are often the first to grasp them. They can be powerful agents for change within their communities and societies. It is our responsibility to provide them with the opportunity, the resources and the voice to do so.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The basic principles of refugee protection are deeply rooted both in the values prevailing in the Arabian peninsula before Islam, in Islamic tradition and in Islamic law. The governments and people of the Muslim world have demonstrated this enormous generosity for many decades and even centuries. At the same time, all of the countries in this region have embraced the protection of children through their ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that celebrates its 25th anniversary next month.
This conference now provides us an opportunity to collectively recommit to both of these strong protection traditions, and to work together towards improving the protection of refugee children in the region and further afield. I hope this meeting will help expand and strengthen partnerships among governments, civil society, international organisations and the private sector, and that during our discussions we can identify specific actions to ensure refugee children and adolescents are better protected and given hope for the future.
Not investing in young refugees is a huge missed opportunity. We must now allow these children to become a lost generation. If we do not protect them from exploitation and abuse, if we leave them uneducated and unskilled, it will delay by many years the recovery and development of their countries. Clearly, the ultimate key to protecting children lies in resolving the conflicts that forced them to flee - and only political solutions can address it. But until they are found, we must do everything to protect and nurture this generation of refugee children. Because it will be them who hold the keys to the future of their countries, and to peace and prosperity for the entire region.
Thank you very much. Shokran.