UNHCR chief calls for urgent action to protect refugee children
GENEVA – Millions of girls and boys are among the unprecedented numbers of people being driven from their homes by wars, conflict and persecution globally. Protecting them and finding solutions to the enormous risks they face is the theme of a two-day forum that opened in Geneva today.
"Children on the move are exposed to grave risks, especially if they are unaccompanied or separated," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in opening remarks to the ninth annual High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges.
A growing number of children, many separated from family and parents, are now daily exposed to smugglers and traffickers. Their education is disrupted, and they are often in danger, Grandi told the gathering on the theme of "Children on the Move."
"They are exposed to criminal smugglers and traffickers. The fact that they often have no protection – even from people traveling with them – exposes them of course to all types of exploitation. We cannot accept this. We need to fight back, we need to find ways to address this situation," he said.
Grandi said children make up more than half – 51 per cent – of the 21.3 million refugees worldwide. Many children on the move end up in detention facilities, which can have a serious negative impact on their physical and mental health and life-long development.
They are also vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, exploitation and the risk of statelessness. Their futures are uncertain and many have missed out on years of schooling as a result of displacement.
Grandi highlighted several significant commitments adopted by states in the New York Declaration at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September, to find "practical ways forward in order to address some of the issues and problems" faced by children on the move.
He stressed pledges to end the practice of detaining children to determine their migration status, and to ensure that states document the births of all children born on their territory to prevent and reduce the risk of statelessness.
Grandi also mentioned pledges to find timely solutions for refugee children and youth – including expanding "legal pathways" such as resettlement opportunities and increased family reunion, as well as quick access to quality education. These steps were welcomed by refugee youth delegates who took part in the forum.
"Empowering young people so that, when they go back, they have the skills, the abilities to rebuild their countries, I think that's very important," said Joseph Munyambanza, 26, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo at age six, accompanied by an older brother.
"If you don't act now, you risk a lost generation."
Laura Valencia, a 19-year-old who fled her native Colombia for Ecuador at the age of 11, also stressed the need for swift action: "If you don't act now, you risk a lost generation."
"For us it is really important that decisions, good practices and commitments are real, but implemented now," she added, speaking on the sidelines of the event.
Read about gang threats driving children and youth to flee the northern triangle region of Central America, and the grave dangers young people face at the hands of smugglers in Europe and Southeast Asia.