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Implementation of UNHCR's policy and guidelines on refugee children

Executive Committee Meetings

Implementation of UNHCR's policy and guidelines on refugee children

20 September 1995


1. The Executive Committee, in its 1994 Conclusion on Refugee Children, adopted at its forty-fifth session, requested that a progress report on the implementation of the UNHCR Policy on Refugee Children and the related Guidelines be presented to its forty-sixth session (A/AC.96/839, para.23 (i)). This report covers progress made and some challenges related to refugee children. Its organization closely follows that of the Guidelines on Refugee Children.

2. The Guidelines and the principles contained therein have been widely disseminated throughout UNHCR, including through their use in training activities. Over 14,000 copies of the Guidelines had been distributed by August 1995. The Guidelines have been translated into German, Russian and Bulgarian, and UNHCR Branch Office Rome is considering translating them into Italian for distribution, inter alia, to those involved in work with unaccompanied children, such as border police. The UNHCR Centre for Documentation on Refugees has made an electronic version available.

3. Many international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have distributed the Guidelines to their Field Offices for training staff, and have used them as a basis for developing policy and reporting methods in their own organizations as well as for developing terms of reference for project evaluations. UNHCR works closely with individual NGOs and groups of NGOs such as the International Council of Voluntary Agency's Task Force on Refugee Children.


4. UNHCR continues, through training activities and dissemination of the Guidelines, to promote the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child internally and in contacts with government and NGO counterparts. The Office actively participates in the work of the Committee on the Rights of the Child by providing information to the Committee concerning the situation of refugee children in every country which has submitted State party reports over the last year.

5. The work with the Committee has proved to be an asset in terms of raising awareness of issues of concern to the Office, and in promoting children's rights issues within UNHCR. UNHCR has provided assistance to Governments in preparing State party reports to the Committee, and in implementing the recommendations of the Committee, which has enhanced protection efforts in favour of refugee children.

6. UNHCR has actively participated in and supported the Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, undertaken by the Expert appointed by the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution 48/157 (1993). UNHCR has, inter alia, organized with UNICEF, the field mission of the Expert to the Rwanda emergency and acted as a resource partner. The study covers challenges facing UNHCR with respect to refugee children.

7. UNHCR participated in the work of the Special Commission of the Hague Conference on the revision of the 1961 Hague Convention Concerning the Powers of Authorities and the Law Applicable in respect of the Protection of Minors. The Office seeks to ensure that the concerns relating to refugee children will be included in the revision.


8. UNHCR has included much of its field work for the psychosocial well-being of children into community services and education programmes, limiting its focus on individual children who need specialized services. Professional mental health programmes are provided in collaboration with specialized NGOs.

9. Among the unaccompanied refugee children in Goma, Zaire, UNICEF estimates that around 25 per cent are severely traumatized. To respond to this problem, psychosocial activities have been set up through implementing partners. In Ngara, the United Republic of Tanzania, staff have been trained to be part of a comprehensive community services programme including social workers, teachers, traditional healers, health staff, women and youth groups, and church leaders to deal with some of the referral cases.

10. A review of UNHCR's Women Victims of Violence Project in Kenya (EC/1995/SC.2/CRP.22), presented to the 20 June 1995 Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters, stressed the need to better address the psychosocial needs of child survivors. The project is partly intended to assist families to deal constructively with the aftermath of rape. Children in need of attention are those who are direct victims of sexual violence and who have witnessed rape, as well as those whose mothers are in mental distress after the assault.

11. UNHCR participated in a workshop on addressing the psychosocial needs of children in armed conflict, organized by Harvard University with the collaboration of UNICEF in May 1995. The need for joint UNHCR and UNICEF standard-setting and community-based and sustainable approaches was underlined.


12. The main challenge related to the health of refugee children continues to be timely intervention and provision of adequate food to children in emergencies. Very high mortality and malnutrition rates during the first phase of a new emergency affect children dramatically. Reference is made to the document Refugee Health (EC/1995/SC.2/CRP.29) for further information.

13. The early identification of childhood disabilities and experiments with community-based rehabilitation are parts of a pilot project developed in collaboration with WHO, with NGOs and host Governments as implementing partners, in Benin and Uganda. The target populations are both refugees and local communities. The expected outcome is a community-based model to be used in other refugee situations.


14. There have been incidents of sexual exploitation involving children, including unaccompanied girls, and camp officials, security or military personnel. UNHCR has brought many such incidents to the attention of the concerned authorities, which often results in the abuse being brought to an end. The development of agreed guidelines and procedures, training activities, and close monitoring of the well-being of the child, are among measures to be taken to prevent such abuse. Advice on how to help children is included in UNHCR's recently published guidelines on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence against Refugees. Concerns specific to refugee children are addressed throughout the Guidelines. They draw from and are cross-referenced to UNHCR's Policy and Guidelines on Refugee Children, the best interests of the child being stressed as the cardinal principle for action.

15. Allegations of recruitment of children as combatants or assistants to the military, be it voluntary or forced, or cases of children who are living with the military for alleged protection purposes, continue to emerge in situations of armed conflict, sometimes spilling over into refugee camps. The very nature of the problem, including the secretive way in which such recruitment is usually done, and the fact that it is often done by non-official military groupings, contribute to the difficulty of finding quick solutions.

16. At the field level, UNHCR intervenes where refugee children have been, or are under threat of being, recruited into armed groups. The host Government, with whom lies the ultimate responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in the country, must ensure necessary measures to prevent military influence, especially over children, in refugee camps. UNHCR attempts to protect children from being recruited into military activities, and advocates that children below the age of 15 years not be allowed to volunteer. UNHCR is at present developing a module on rights awareness training to inform refugee women and others about the right of children not to be recruited.

17. UNHCR attended the November 1994 Inter-Sessional Working Group of the Commission on Human Rights on the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. UNHCR strongly supported a prohibition of children under the age of 18 years being involved in hostilities and protection against recruitment, whether forced or voluntary.

18. Detention of refugee and asylum-seeker children and those who are separated from their parents who are detained, continues to be a problem in many countries. UNHCR has recently conducted a Study on Detention which makes reference to the detention of vulnerable groups such as children, with particular reference to unaccompanied minors.


19. UNHCR has recently released a training module on Interviewing Applicants for Refugee Status which includes a chapter on how to conduct refugee status determination interviews with children. The guidance offered in this manual incorporates the UNHCR Guidelines and procedures which have been developed for refugee children.

20. Issues of statelessness and nationality have assumed a prominent position on UNHCR's agenda due to the increasing numbers of unprotected persons with no effective nationality. Children in some regions inherit the statelessness of their parents. Through Article 11 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and as part of its concern for prevention, UNHCR seeks to assist these children to acquire a nationality as a means of receiving national protection.

21. Administrative procedures for birth registration must be clear and well-documented, and support has been given to Field Offices on how to improve such procedures and overcome challenges in this area.


22. In 1994, almost 600,000 refugee children were educated under programmes receiving funding from UNHCR or with fees paid by UNHCR, while other children attended public or private schools without direct UNHCR support.

23. Revised guidelines on educational assistance to refugees were issued in June 1995, incorporating policies developed in response to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and building on the UNHCR Policy and Guidelines. Emphasis is placed on rapid educational response using the basic curriculum of the country or area of origin, to promote voluntary repatriation, with the possibility of transition to a curriculum incorporating or based on host country languages and materials if repatriation is delayed. It is stressed that the ladder of educational opportunity must remain accessible, although it may be climbed more slowly under emergency conditions. The use of distance education and other innovative approaches are being explored to meet the needs of older children.

24. The policy of rapid educational response in emergencies has borne fruit in the Kagera region of the United Republic of Tanzania, where some 60,000 Rwandan refugee children have been receiving non-formal schooling on a shift system since late 1994. Much remains to be done: to reintroduce Rwandan textbooks, extend schooling to older children, and introduce supplementary materials for environmental education and education for reconciliation. Inter-agency cooperation, supported by the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania, has facilitated an effective response.

25. Inter-agency efforts towards rapid educational response for children in the refugee camps in eastern Zaire have suffered from operational difficulties and resource constraints. Refugee self-help school classes typically lack basic materials, and may offer a negative view of social groups with whom coexistence will be required after repatriation.

26. In view of the complexity of educational issues, a Regional Education Workshop was held in Nairobi to train UNHCR and implementing partner staff from 15 countries. A similar workshop will be held in West Africa.

27. UNHCR highlighted the importance of education for refugee girls in its position paper on the Draft Platform for Action for the Fourth World Conference on Women. It was noted that in the refugee context access to education may not be available to all refugee children, or that girls' opportunities for education may be jeopardized.

28. Adolescent children risk falling between all stools in refugee programmes. Young refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves in a void, without prospects. They often lack access to education or other vocational training programmes and risk becoming marginalized. Efforts are increasingly made to target young people and to include them in programme activities. Many of the nearly 11,000 beneficiaries of vocational training in 1994 under programmes receiving funding from UNHCR were refugee youth aged 15 to 18 years, as were some of the almost 13,000 beneficiaries of literacy courses. While more funds are needed for vocational training, there is a limit to the number of youth that can subsequently be absorbed into the labour market. Literacy and specially designed school re-entry programmes with a prevocational component can serve larger numbers of adolescents and are badly needed in some locations.


29. The Rwanda/Burundi emergency has created by far the highest number of unaccompanied children in recent years; in July 1995 some 117,000 unaccompanied children were identified. More than 16,000 separated children have been reunited with parents and extended family members. Multi-agency involvement, decentralization of responsibilities and inter-agency information-sharing are key elements in this regional effort. Different tracing methods are used to locate scattered family members. Among these are active tracing, including dissemination of children's names at food distribution centres, markets and other public focal points; family mediation programmes to enable children who entered centres for unaccompanied children because of poverty, food shortages or social problems to return to their families; photo-tracing; Red Cross messages to re-establish contact between separated family members; and database tracing to track and match family members in various countries.

30. Developments during 1994 and 1995 in the Rwanda emergency underscored the problem of abandonment of children by impoverished families who believed their children would have better access to food and social services through the unaccompanied children's centres set up by humanitarian agencies. One worthwhile initiative is a prevention of abandonment programme to assist vulnerable families to continue to care for their children, developed by Food for the Hungry International and supported by UNHCR. An extra food ration card, a blanket or a piece of plastic sheeting may be all that is required to enable families to continue to provide for their children.

31. The need for a two-pronged approach in meeting the needs of children in an emergency was thus again apparent; while establishing procedures to assist and protect unaccompanied children from the onset of the emergency, vulnerable and impoverished families must be supported in their efforts to care for their children in the family.

32. UNHCR's Operation ReUNite was created as an additional registration and tracing tool. It consists of a database containing digitalized pictures of children and other information facilitating easy computer search for missing children. More than 6,300 children in and from former Yugoslavia have been registered in this database. An assessment is underway to explore how this technology may be used in the Rwanda emergency to support ongoing efforts.

33. More than 4,200 unaccompanied children have gone back to Viet Nam. There are, however, still some 300 minors left in the camps, mainly in Hong Kong. In Viet Nam, the monitoring and reintegration of unaccompanied returnee minors, which were implemented by Nordic Assistance to Repatriated Vietnamese (NARV), have been assumed by UNHCR.

34. In the Haitian refugee situation, a child specialist was deployed, inter alia, to advise all actors involved as to how the Guidelines on Refugee Children could be adapted and used to promote the best interests of the child. The arrangement involved, first, a durable solution decision, and second, family tracing and home assessments in Haiti, followed by monitoring after return. In the final stages of the assessment process, all the unaccompanied children left in the centre at Guantanamo were paroled into the United States.

35. If missing children are located, the first hurdle has been overcome. But the second, to reunite family members living in different countries, sometimes proves extremely difficult. Obstacles to speedy reunifications are sometimes of an inter-country nature, such as defining the country in which reunification should take place and establishing the procedures to be followed. The child may be advised against joining his or her parents for legitimate reasons, such as in a case in which the reunion would take place in a conflict zone. Adults in the refugee community may also advise the child not to go home for other reasons. The nature of such problems and the justification for their being raised may be very different, but the results tend to be the same - the child is not reunited with the family.

36. Various initiatives have been taken to develop an operational framework for the management of unaccompanied children in future emergencies and to consolidate technical and professional practice in this area, both within and outside UNHCR. One such initiative has been organized related to the issues of family tracing and reunification by Save the Children Fund-UK (SCF-UK) with the participation of UNHCR, UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and representatives of certain Governments responsible for large groups of unaccompanied children.

37. A recommendation concerning the application to refugee children and other internationally displaced children of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect of Inter-country Adoption was adopted on 21 October 1994. This recommendation was elaborated in consultation with UNHCR and is consistent with UNHCR's policy on adoption as set out in the Guidelines.

38. An Inter-Office Memorandum has been shared with Field Offices and Regional Bureaux, setting out this policy and containing a brief overview of the major instruments. The Hague Convention provides safeguards to ensure that inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect to his or her fundamental rights, and it supplements the existing international legal regime for the protection of children, most notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

39. More than 1,000 copies of a manual on working with unaccompanied children in the community in French, English or Spanish have been distributed to Field Offices and NGOs.

40. A more extensive report will be issued to the General Assembly as the Secretary-General's report on the implementation of General Assembly resolution 49/172 of 1994, entitled Assistance to Unaccompanied Refugee Minors. The report, prepared by UNHCR with contributions from UNICEF and the Department for Humanitarian Affairs, focuses on protection and assistance needs specific to children who have become separated from their families.


41. Preparatory work and exchange of information both in and between the country of asylum and the country of origin is crucial to ensuring sustainability in relationships such as foster placement. Finding solutions to problems which might lead the foster family to abandon the unaccompanied child in the repatriation process seeks to ensure a certain continuity in the life of the child and reduce the risk that the child joins the ranks of street children or others at risk of exploitation and abuse.

42. Country of origin authorities may need support in the re-establishment of child care and monitoring systems for vulnerable children in returnee areas. Together with NGOs and local authorities, UNHCR established or promoted projects in countries of origin, to prepare the return of the child and to facilitate and monitor reintegration. It is important that family tracing and reunification efforts continue after repatriation for those whose families have not been found. Cambodia and Mozambique are among countries where such efforts in favour of unaccompanied returnee children continue.

43. In its General Conclusion on International Protection (A/AC.96/839, para. 19 (gg)) the Executive Committee urged that arrangements be made for prompt tracing and family reunification for refugee children before resettlement abroad is promoted. In this connection, special efforts are made to protect refugee children from hastily or poorly conceived international adoption programmes.


44. In emergencies, UNHCR deploys community services staff as part of the emergency teams under a stand-by agreement with the NGO Rädda Barnen. This arrangement helps ensure that qualified and experienced staff systematically assess and address the needs of children from the outset of the emergency, preparing the ground for follow-up by regular community services staff in the next phase. In 1995 such staff were deployed to Daghestan, North Ossetia and Ingushetia in the Russian Federation.

45. In January 1995, UNHCR established a Regional Support Unit for Refugee Children in Kigali, Rwanda. The Unit provides technical assistance and programme support to UNHCR Field Offices and implementing partners in Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire and the United Republic of Tanzania. It also ensures regional coordination and inter-agency collaboration to promote family and community-based responses for children. Quarterly information notes giving updates on the situation of children affected by the conflict and progress made in protecting and assisting them have been widely distributed, inter alia, to members of the Executive Committee. In collaboration with UNICEF and NGOs, the Guidelines were used as a policy framework, and operationalized and adapted to the situation facing field staff.

46. In its 1994 Statistical Overview UNHCR reported age distribution of refugees for 70 countries compared to 37 in 1993. Children comprised 55 per cent of these selected populations. Efforts are under way to increase reporting on gender and age distribution from the field.

47. Among a range of activities currently in progress which will enhance the integration of children's needs into the mainstream of UNHCR is the revision of Chapter 4 of the UNHCR Manual, taking into account the 1994 revision of the Guidelines on Children. Similarly, a new UNHCR Handbook on Programme Management for UNHCR Implementing Partners to be issued in 1995 will highlight the importance of assessing children's needs from the earliest stages of emergencies to the attainment of durable solutions and their integration into UNHCR protection and assistance activities. The Handbook reinforces People-Oriented Planning (POP) and highlights the importance and availability of UNHCR Guidelines and Manuals on Children and Women.

48. Programme management training focuses, inter alia, on how to integrate the needs of children into UNHCR programme activities at the assessment and design stages as well as ensuring that the needs of children are monitored and addressed throughout the duration of UNHCR projects. Reference to the Policy and Guidelines on Children has also been integrated in the emergency management training, and a training module on emergency response to the needs of unaccompanied children will be developed, partly in collaboration with UNICEF. A case study focusing on the needs of unaccompanied children has been developed for POP training.

49. The issue of the rights of the child has also been included in a training module on Human Rights and Refugee Protection. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is addressed both through case studies and, in one case, discussion with members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Field Offices, such as those in Mexico and India, also have initiated training on refugee children, focusing on their rights. The annual protection reporting exercise was modified for the 1994 reporting period to ensure that Field Offices specifically addressed protection concerns of refugee children. The instruction on Reporting on UNHCR Activities and Programming of Activities also specifically requests reporting offices and officers to report on the impact of programmed activities for children.

50. A Memorandum of Understanding currently being elaborated with UNICEF will assign responsibility to UNICEF to take the lead in support to unaccompanied children in their own country, including support to returnee children. UNHCR takes the lead in refugee populations. The two organizations jointly establish overall policies and guidelines and ensure the necessary operational coordination and information-sharing between operations in countries of asylum and of origin. Both agencies coordinate with ICRC in relation to tracing, reunification activities and general policy.


51. While integration of protection and assistance activities for children into the mainstream of UNHCR programmes is the ultimate goal, there will continue to be a need for additional efforts to accelerate this integration process. There will also continue to be a need for short-term pilot projects to further develop and enhance the quality and timeliness of UNHCR response to the needs of refugee children.

52. Activities described in this paper and progress made represent the concerted efforts of a number of Sections at Headquarters and Field Offices. There is, however room for further improvement. Addressing challenges faced in the provision of protection and assistance to refugee children and enhancing the systematic response to these needs, will continue to be high on UNHCR's agenda.