Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Special Session on Children, New York, 8 May 2002
(Check against delivery)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today we follow in the footsteps of those who assembled here over a decade ago to attend the first World Summit for Children. There can hardly be a topic more important than that of children. Indeed, they are our very future.
Almost half of the 21 million people of concern to my Office are children under the age of 18. These children deserve special attention. They are often exposed to armed conflict and they often suffer from a lack of access to food, water, shelter and basic health care. They are often separated from their families; they are sometimes subjected to sexual exploitation, abuse and violence; they are vulnerable to manipulation and forced military recruitment; and they are often exposed to HIV/AIDS and other epidemics. In addition, their education is often disrupted at a crucial stage in their development.
I have had the opportunity to meet many refugee children and adolescents during my recent visits to countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. Though their situations were individually and culturally different, they all had a few overarching dreams in common: enough food and other basic assistance; a secure environment; reunification with their families; access to education, sports and other recreational activities; and help to become self-reliant through skills training. These are all quite attainable goals, if only the necessary resources are made available.
With the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, we have available to us a comprehensive framework that sets the minimum standards of treatment for refugee children worldwide. While UNHCR is actively promoting States' ratification of the Optional Protocols, we must find better ways to ensure that these standards are properly implemented at all levels.
Since the 1990 Summit, my Office has taken significant steps in highlighting the special needs of refugee children and in strengthening programmes aimed at protecting and assisting them. But while there has been progress in a number of areas, new challenges and unresolved funding shortfalls have resulted in many needs remaining unmet.
A major challenge for refugee children is that they are often separated from their parents or primary caregivers during flight. This problem is compounded by the fact that they often find themselves having to look after younger siblings all by themselves. Tracing and family reunification of unaccompanied and separated children has been a continuous priority activity for UNHCR. We work closely on this with the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF and other partners.
One positive example is in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, where close inter-agency collaboration resulted in the reunification of some 62,000 Rwandan children between 1994 and 1998. But while there has been some progress in addressing this problem, much work needs to be done. A strengthened commitment to promote tracing and family reunification must form an integral part of any strategy to address the needs of unaccompanied minors. It must also help ensure that the best interests of particularly vulnerable children are taken into account. A renewed commitment from countries around the world is needed, to ensure that children have access to asylum procedures and that they are assisted by legal representatives. Protection against inappropriate detention also needs to be addressed, as thousands of unaccompanied children find themselves detained in facilities alongside common criminals.
Another issue of major concern to my Office is the vulnerability of refugee children to violence, exploitation and abuse. Preventive measures must be taken to address this, through education and awareness campaigns, and by ensuring that camp layouts and food distribution systems take into account the special protection needs of women and children. UNHCR is currently working on this with the entire UN system and NGO partners.
In addition, it is vital to monitor compliance and to ensure the accountability of those who would violate these fundamental rights. Together with the Secretary-General, I am committed to a policy of zero tolerance in cases of sexual exploitation, abuse, and violence. Even one case is one too many. At the same time, regarding the recent allegations of sexual exploitation in refugee camps in West Africa, I am sure you will agree with me that I must defend my staff against any unsubstantiated allegations.
We have a collective responsibility to address the underlying root causes that increase the susceptibility of refugee children to abuse. In seemingly hopeless environments, the poor and the dispossessed are often forced to resort to desperate measures to survive. In some cases, a lack of adequate resources and funding for programmes has contributed to the breakdown in the implementation and monitoring of safeguards. I have therefore recommended that an examination of the quality and the level of emergency relief assistance and distribution systems be undertaken in order to ensure the protection of both women and children in refugee camps.
Finally, let me use this opportunity to address what I believe is one of the most important issues facing refugee children today: education. Education provides a positive alternative to drugs, to crime, to military recruitment and to other forms of exploitation and abuse. Ensuring that refugee children have access to education, including post-primary education and skills training for adolescents, is high on UNHCR's priority list. An important development in this area was the establishment two years ago of an independent Refugee Education Trust, which is supported by UNHCR. The aim of this programme is to address the funding gap for education at the post-primary level.
Nevertheless, in recent years the international community has tended to place less importance on education than the refugees themselves. With humanitarian needs growing in many parts of the world, the funding available for refugee education programmes has decreased. We cannot allow this trend to continue. Much more needs to be done to improve access to education for refugee children, if we are to achieve the global goal of Education for All, set out at the World Education Forum in Dakar in April 2000.
On a more positive note, I would like to draw your attention to three innovative partnerships that UNHCR has entered into recently, to give refugee children access to positive developmental activities. The first is with Angelina Jolie, who I have appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, and who continues to show a particular interest in refugee children. The second is with Olympic Aid and the four-times Olympic gold medallist Johan Koss. Under this partnership, sports projects are now being implemented in some thirty camps and refugee-populated areas in countries on all five continents. These projects provide opportunities for children to make friends, to overcome the idleness which is often part of life in a refugee camp, and to build tolerance and understanding. The third involves one of the Secretary-General's Messengers of Peace, Jane Goodall, who is working with UNHCR to extend her Institute's "Roots and Shoots" programme to refugee settings. The aim of this programme is to provide young refugees with the chance to participate in taking care of the community and the environment, and to link them up with more privileged children in similar "Roots and Shoots" groups.
Children - including refugee children - are our mirror to the future. However, if all they know is deprivation, violence and exploitation, it is unlikely that they will contribute to the development of stable, just and productive societies in the future. If, on the other hand, we are able to ensure that they live in environments where they are physically and economically secure, where they are not at risk of being exploited, and where they have access to health care, education and other developmental opportunities, how much more likely they are to contribute positively to the societies in which they live.