World Children’s Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the specific vulnerabilities of refugee children, who make up over half of the world’s refugee population. Many will spend their entire childhood away from home and sometimes separated from their families. Already traumatised, having been forced to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution, they often become marginalised and excluded, without the proper support to rebuild their lives and realise their potential. More than half of the world’s 14.8 million school-aged refugee children are currently missing out on formal education. In situations of crisis and displacement, children are at particular risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation, as well as trafficking or forced military recruitment.
In Cyprus, many refugee children arrive without their parents, sometimes together with other family members who are vulnerable themselves, including elderly grandparents and young siblings. Unaccompanied or separated children may have lost contact with their parents during their journey to safety or, sadly, their parents may have lost their lives because of conflict. It is crucial for these children to undergo a determination of their best interest upon arrival in the country of asylum, ensuring their safety and development while aiming to restore family links.
At the Pournara First Reception Centre, which currently hosts 306 children, including 198 unaccompanied or separated children, there is a lack of access to schools and language programs. Efforts have been made to reduce the time unaccompanied or separated children spend at Pournara, but there are still limited shelters for safe housing. Local communities’ unwillingness to accept the establishment of shelters for unaccompanied or separated children and the negative public opinion on refugee inclusion also hinder access to organized activities and education. Additionally, there is a need for more programs to prepare older teenagers for independent living upon turning 18.
Immediate and unhindered access to schooling, language programs, psychosocial support, and rehabilitation services are essential for all refugee children. The Ministry of Education has taken measures to enhance the smooth integration of refugee children into schools. However, challenges such as language barriers and the need for additional support persist. Raising awareness about refugees and fostering connections between refugee and local children is also crucial for creating an inclusive school environment.
To better address the needs of refugee and asylum-seeking children, UNHCR calls on authorities in Cyprus to establish a best interest determination procedure for unaccompanied and separated children; create more shelters; encourage and support local and refugee foster families; train more social welfare officers and provide tailored orientation and integration programs. UNHCR also calls for vocational skills training, scholarships and opportunities for refugee youth, as well as improved public information and awareness programs within schools promoting diversity and acceptance. Ultimately, promoting a culture of acceptance is vital for the realization of the rights of the refugee and asylum-seeking children.