Investing in the Future: Protecting Refugee Children in the Middle East and North Africa
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Remarks at the First Regional Conference Dedicated to the Protection of Refugee Children and Adolescents
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
October 15, 2014
I would like to thank His Royal Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Al Qasimi, and High Commissioner Guterres for hosting this very important conference.
Children in the region confront horrors and hardships that almost defy belief. They have been blown apart by bombs at elementary schools, sold as sex slaves and forced to fight.
Millions of children have been driven from their homes in Syria. Recently hundreds of thousands have fled their homes in Iraq. I have met refugee children in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and heard their harrowing stories.
I have also seen hundreds of refugee children who were bound for North Africa. They had walked from Eritrea to a camp in Ethiopia. Many were utterly alone. They had fled ruthless repression, hopelessness, and military service without end. But were about to continue northward, where smugglers and traffickers could easily kidnap, rob, rape them or send them off aboard unseaworthy boats to drown.
By cooperating more effectively, I believe we can offer more and better protection to these vulnerable refugee children and adolescents. So I am very pleased that we have gathered for this conference.
Meeting refugees’ basic needs – providing shelter, health care, and nutrition – is not enough. Children and adolescents need targeted aid that is tailored to their ages and needs, recognizes how vulnerable they are and how resilient they can be. These programs can change the trajectory of their lives.
The U.S. government supports the goals outlined in UNHCR’s 2012 Framework for the Protection of Children. Today I will focus on one of these goals, safety, and on the related issues of protecting girls, providing quality, education and proper documentation for refugee children.
Children continue to face danger, long after they flee from the bullets and the bombs. Often refugee children and adolescents shoulder burdens that they should not, because families are fractured, or because years of exile have stripped them of their money, their dignity, and their patience.
More and more children are working, often in jobs that jeopardize their health or their futures because their families need the cash.
Refugee girls and adolescents face sexual exploitation and abuse. Some of those who wield power over refugees have reportedly extorted sexual favors. Land lords, camp leaders, and as in crises elsewhere, even some of those charged with delivering aid.
Many Syrian refugee girls are not allowed to attend school or even leave their homes because it’s considered too dangerous. Women and girls may be reluctant to seek help when they are harassed. Adolescent girls who are harassed may themselves be blamed and punished by relatives for shaming their families. In part, because sexual abuse is such a danger, and in part because families are running out of money, girls are being forced to marry.
Studies show that in two years, the rate of child marriages among Syrian refugees in Jordan has doubled, and nearly half of these marriages pair girls with men at least a decade older. Child brides are more likely to drop out of school, have risky early pregnancies, and face domestic abuse, which endangers both them and their children.
Donors, aid agencies, and host governments can work together to help children be and feel safer. Specialized training can help aid workers care for and counsel children. Most aid groups know that we should not create redundant structures that run parallel to existing government institutions, but instead, improve government services to protect all children.
As humanitarians and donors, we must hold ourselves to the highest possible standard. Aid workers and others who are supposed to be helping refugees should NEVER – not ever – get away with sexually exploiting or abusing them. This is why codes of conduct and respect for the core principles of Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse are so important. We can improve safeguards and mechanisms for reporting abuse and work together to bring perpetrators to justice.
Countries hosting refugee children can also consider tightening certain laws or stepping up enforcement of existing laws to prevent forced early marriage and the worst forms of child labor. Governments could ease the financial pressures on families that put children at risk. For instance, granting temporary work permits to adults – can make an enormous difference to children.
Access to good schools can insulate refugee children from all sorts of hazards. Parents who believe their children are learning something useful are less likely to urge them to drop out and go to work or get married. Being in school lowers the risk that children will be recruited to fight.
In addition, school can offer something precious to uprooted children: normalcy and social cohesion. Yet, after more than three years of warfare, three million children in Syria are no longer in school. More than half a million Syrian refugee children in neighboring countries face the same predicament. This includes half of all registered Syrian refugee children in Jordan and 80 percent of those in Lebanon.
Because schools are severely overcrowded, some communities have resorted to double-and even triple-shifts. Syrian children in Turkey and northern Iraq also struggle because they do not understand Turkish or Kurdish. The majority, who do not live in camps, have a much harder time enrolling in school. Some have missed too much school to go back. Some are too traumatized to concentrate and learn.
Education is also under siege in Iraq and Gaza. In parts of Iraq, more than 2,000 schools now house families forced to flee the mayhem unleashed by ISIL extremists. After the recent fighting, many schools in Gaza are either damaged or destroyed or continue to shelter displaced civilians.
Many of your governments are pouring enormous effort and resources into accommodating the huge influx of refugee children. The No Lost Generation initiative has helped to nearly triple the number of Syrian children receiving education in neighboring countries. The United States is committing millions of dollars for education programs through organizations like UNICEF, UNHCR, UNRWA, and international non-governmental organizations.
The international community supports steps to broaden access further by making it easier to register for school or earn certificates or other credentials. Innovative solutions including non-traditional education can fill gaps. For example, UNRWA is broadcasting school lessons on satellite television and YouTube to reach its students in Syria who are unable to attend school.
We can help children feel safer in school and on the way there. Children too emotionally distraught to pay attention may benefit from counseling. Additional training can help teachers to recognize and assist them. Our projects should not only help refugees but also build social cohesion between refugee and host communities by meeting both groups’ needs.
Finally, I would like to talk about my third topic: the legal documents every child needs to be recognized as a person. We are at risk of creating a generation of stateless children. This is because many refugee children are not registered at birth and because nationality laws in several countries in the region bar women from conferring their nationality to their children.
Every year, thousands of Syrian refugee children are born without documentation, and without fathers on hand to help secure their nationality. Without birth registration, these children may not be able to enroll in school or gain access to vital services. Worse still, they become particularly vulnerable to the type of exploitation we’ve already discussed today: to child labor, child marriage, and other forms of gender-based violence. This lack of birth registration can haunt refugee children for the rest of their lives.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of State launched an initiative to promote women’s equal right to nationality. It seeks legal reforms in the 27 countries where women lack this right, and pushes for registration of all children at birth.
Some countries have taken important steps to remove barriers to registration.
Jordan, for example, is establishing satellite offices of its Civil Service Department in major refugee camps, and waiving certain deadlines and fees for birth registration.
We know that children are resilient. If someone stands up for them, protects them, teaches them, while they are still young they can heal, and learn. The demands are so great and the stakes so high that we must not falter, or waste precious resources or miss opportunities to cooperate. I am grateful to be here, to share our perspectives and to hear yours as we work together to help the region’s children.
Thank you very much.