New York, NY
The focus of this year’s World Refugee Day, June 20, is refugee youth. Of the more than 40 million refugees and internally displaced worldwide — uprooted by conflict, oppression or persecution — at least 50 percent are children and adolescents. While the rights and needs of young children in emergency and conflict situations have received significant attention for some time, the rights of displaced adolescents have largely been ignored.
Refugee and internally displaced adolescents face distinct challenges. The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children has documented that adolescents affected by armed conflict are more likely than younger children to: be recruited into military service; miss out on education; be sexually abused, abducted and held as sexual slaves; contract sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS; and require reproductive health care. Many adolescents assume adult responsibilities before they are prepared, as heads of household, principal wage-earners and teen parents. Few experience a true childhood.
As one of the leading advocacy and expert resource organizations for refugee and displaced women, children and adolescents, the Women’s Commission works to ensure that their rights are respected and that any abuses are brought to the attention of the international community. In honor of World Refugee Day, we strongly urge the Editorial Page to address the plight of refugee and internally displaced adolescents and to consider some key concerns:
The support of young people’s rights and abilities is not only an obligation, it’s good policy. In today’s conflicts, young people are too often coerced into fighting, but they are also the key to sustainable peace. Young people want to help themselves, their families and their communities, but they’re too often given little hope for the future, and see violence as their only way to survive. By ensuring that their basic needs are met and that they have adequate educational opportunities and access to health care, among other services, the international community can go a long way to giving a voice to a too-often forgotten group who have much to offer the world.
Passage of the Women and Children in Armed Conflict Protection Act of 2003, introduced in May by Senator Joe Biden, is one concrete way the U.S. can help support programs for refugee and internally displaced adolescents. The bill would ensure that the U.S. government makes the protection of women and children a priority in all stages of conflict. Among its provisions, the bill creates a $45 million annual Women and Children’s Protection Fund for initiatives to prevent, detect and respond to gender-based violence and exploitation in armed conflict.