Approximately half of the world's refugees are children.
Children need special care and assistance because:
- Children are vulnerable. They are susceptible to disease, malnutrition and physical injury.
- Children are dependent. They need the support of adults, not only for physical survival, particularly in the early years of childhood, but also for their psychological and social well-being.
- Children are developing. They grow in developmental sequences, like a tower of bricks, each layer depending on the one below it. Serious delays interrupting these sequences can severely disrupt development.
Refugee children face far greater dangers to their safety and well being than the average child. The sudden and violent onset of emergencies, the disruption of families and community structures as well as the acute shortage of resources with which most refugees are confronted, deeply affect the physical and psychological well-being of refugee children. It is a sad fact that infants and young children are often the earliest and most frequent victims of violence, disease and malnutrition which accompany population displacement and refugee outflows. In the aftermath of emergencies and in the search for solutions, the separation of families and familiar structures continues to affect adversely refugee children of all ages.
Thus, helping refugee children to meet their physical and social needs often means providing support to their families and communities.
Children's vulnerability results in part from this dependence. They are physically and psychologically less able than adults to provide for their own needs or to protect themselves from harm. Consequently, they must rely on the care and protection of adults. They are psychologically at great risk from the trauma inherent in situations which cause uprooting, and from the uprooting itself. Younger children are physically less able than adults and adolescents to survive illness, malnutrition or deprivation of basic necessities. When resources are scarce, they are the first to die.
Refugee girls are often even more vulnerable than refugee boys. In some cultural and social contexts, girls are less valued than boys and, consequently, are more often subject to neglect and abuse. Their participation in education programmes is often prematurely curtailed. They are subject to sexual abuse, assault and exploitation in greater numbers than are boys.
Among refugee children, the most vulnerable are those who are not accompanied by an adult recognized by law as being responsible for their care. In the absence of special efforts to monitor and protect their well being, the basic needs of unaccompanied refugee children often go unmet and their rights are frequently violated. Indeed, the presence of unaccompanied children and the need for special actions on their behalf must be anticipated in every refugee situation.
Children share with adult refugees the need for protection and assistance. Children, however, have needs and rights additional to those of adults. Care must be taken to ensure that these special needs and rights are perceived, understood and attended to by those who seek to protect and assist refugees generally. Until this becomes a matter of course for all actors working with refugees, specific directives regarding refugee children are required.
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