This statement was submitted by the NGO Committee on UNICEF / Sub-Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict and the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child / Sub-Group on Refugee Children and Children in Armed Conflict, facilitated by the International Council for Voluntary Agencies. March 3, 2000.
REFUGEE CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
The NGO community welcomes the 50th anniversary of UNHCR as well as the approaching anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. We deeply regret, however, that fifty years after the Convention has been adopted children still suffer from displacement from their homes and communities. Children need special attention, and the international community needs to set clear standards for their protection. This forum is an important venue to highlight the importance of implementing such standards. As forced displacement of people remains a serious problem world-wide, we regard this anniversary as a great opportunity to give a new impetus to the full implementation of the Refugee Convention. We encourage governments that have not yet signed the Convention to do so.
We also welcome the tenth anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the recent adoption of its Optional Protocol on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts. It establishes 18 years as the minimum age for participation in hostilities, prohibits compulsory recruitment by governments of persons below 18 years and bans recruitment of those under 18 for use in hostilities by armed groups. However, we regret the Protocol's failure to establish 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment into governmental armed forces.
The new Protocol is an important tool to strengthen the protection of refugee and displaced children and to prevent their recruitment from camps, which is a common practice worldwide. UNHCR should ensure that existing guidelines and training modules on the protection of refugee children are brought in line with these new developments, and we urge States to become parties to the Optional Protocol and implement it in full, as soon as it is adopted by the UN General Assembly.
Meeting Adolescents' Protection and Assistance Needs
Approximately half of the world's refugees and internally displaced persons are children. A large portion of these children are adolescents, whose special protection and assistance needs are often unrecognized and whose capacities go largely unsupported. Strong, concerted international action is needed to address the distinct needs and support the strengths of adolescents.
Among children, adolescents are the most likely to experience: recruitment into military service; becoming heads of households; sexual violence and exploitation; sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; the need to generate a livelihood for themselves and their families; and economic exploitation, in the worst cases as soldiers and prostitutes. Facing lack of opportunities and without hope, they may turn to drugs and crime. At the same time, they are the least likely to have access to education and health services, including reproductive health services.
Ignoring the resources of adolescent refugees and their right to education and assistance means truncating their possibilities to play positive roles in the recovery and future development of their communities. The right to education must be respected as soon as possible in emergencies and access to health services must be ensured. Adolescent participation in decisions made about their well-being and futures (as guaranteed under Article 12 of the CRC) must also be ensured.
UNHCR's Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Children, reflecting the CRC, identify a "child" as "every human being below the age of 18 years." However, UNHCR's registration system renders adolescents invisible, and few programming initiatives target adolescents directly. More efforts are needed to improve birth registration, which is critical for securing children's and adolescents' access to school and for validating their national identity.
Recent efforts within UNHCR, particularly on the part of the Office of the Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children, have helped to increase attention paid to uprooted adolescents. We welcome the joint UNHCR/NGO capacity-building initiative, Action for the Rights of Children (ARC) and the project for children's issues included in the Global Appeal, all of which pay attention to the specific needs of adolescents. In particular, we encourage wide dissemination and implementation of ARC.
UNHCR's Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Children continue to require consistent and full implementation, including for adolescents. Protection and assistance activities and reports to the Executive Committee should reflect this work. Demographic information collected and utilized by UNHCR field staff should account for older children. Rights-based programming approaches that are adolescent-specific should be utilized, and gender equality must be emphasized. The work of the Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children and of the Regional Policy Officers for Children remain vital and requires increased support.
Protection and Services for Girls
Refugee and displaced girls continue to face serious protection concerns and require equal access to services in order to meet their needs and prevent rights violations. Girls are subject to sexual violence and exploitation, including rape, abduction and prostitution. Trafficking for sexual and other purposes is on the rise. Many girls are heads of household, with little recognition of their rights, and are often forced into early marriage. Girls also continue to have less access to education services than boys. They are at increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and facing complications in pregnancies. Yet access to reproductive and other health services remains very limited. Insufficient assistance for girls has led to protection problems, such as in Guinea, where Sierra Leonean girls have been forced into prostitution in order to survive.
UNHCR must work closely with governments and NGOs to assess the full scope of the problems girls experience and make protection and services for girls a high priority. Girls require equal access to education, and education must increasingly be seen as a vital tool for protection. Governments and UNHCR are advised to implement measures to curtail early marriage of refugee and displaced girls and to improve their livelihood. Steps to combat trafficking of girls should include actions for prevention, such as education campaigns to raise awareness among refugee, displaced and host communities. Most governments have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and they must act to uphold its commitments to girls.
Domestic Violence and Children
The problem of intra-family violence affects refugee children as well as adults. Within families, children suffer particular forms of persecution that are sometimes perpetrated or permitted by family members. Separated children in foster care are particularly at risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation.
We welcome guidelines issued by a number of States on the adjudication of gender-based and children's asylum claims. More attention needs to be paid to gender-based persecution, including domestic violence, as grounds for asylum for adults and children. Governments and UNHCR should support programs to prevent and respond to instances of domestic violence against children, including protecting girls from female genital mutilation. UNHCR should support training of relevant staff to ensure education concerning domestic violence and the provision of appropriate support for communities experiencing intra-family violence. We welcome UNHCR efforts to establish guidelines on gender-based persecution, which are in the process of being finalized.
While progress has been made, we note an absence of attention to child and adolescent concerns in UNHCR's most recent emergency operations. Child- and adolescent-focused programs are lacking, and UNHCR Guidelines on Refugee Children, as well as ARC training materials and activities, have not been made readily available to humanitarian workers.
We fear that this may be a regrettable effect of the downsizing and effective dissolution of the Refugee Children's Unit. We urge UNHCR to ensure that child rights standards are reflected in every UNHCR operation in order to avoid diminished performance in the field.
We also note a number of reservations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child concerning asylum and immigration. This discriminates against refugee children and adolescents, and such reservations should be lifted as a priority.
We welcome the nomination of Ms. Christina Linnér as the new Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children and look forward to close collaboration with her to improve the situation of refugee children and adolescents. Again, we underline the need for improved support to the Office of the Senior Coordinator so that it can function as effectively as possible.
We call upon member governments of UNHCR's Executive Committee to endorse the adoption of a conclusion at the time of the Executive Committee meeting in the fall, which focuses on refugee and displaced children and adolescents and reflects the priority issues raised in this statement and at the standing committee meeting as a whole.
We recommend that UNHCR's Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Children be updated, operationalized and implemented in order to reflect recent developments and that sufficient financial and human resources be made available to ensure the link between programming and the protection of refugee children and adolescents.
Geneva, 3 March 2000