Foreign Policy Blogs

The Plight of Unacompanied Child Refugees


Photo by Mark Edwards

In honor of today being International Refugee Day, I want to draw your attention to the millions of child refugees, who are parentless and alone in their struggle for safety and a home.

For millions of children home is a word has very little meaning, or serves only as a painful reminded of what they have lost and fear will never have again. While for most of us in the west, home is a word we take for granted, to most of us having a home is symbol of what we have accomplished and achieved in life. A home is a symbol of family and safety, a place of warmth and love, yet for all too many children, home is nothing but a fading memory, or a dream. Like the story your grandparents always told you about their childhood, the story of home for many children is that far way land that they can only imagine through the stories of their parents or grandparents. Home often only reminds refugee children of what they have lost, often home is just a fading memory. What refugee children have lost is much more than a physical home, it is the loss of their entire families, their homelands, their culture, and their safety.

Once in a Refugee camp, safety and security, especially for children, is a daily struggle. While all refugees are vulnerable, children are are particularly vulnerable, many children are unaccompanied in the camps, and are therefore at even greater risk. Risks in the camps can often come from those who are put in place to protect refugees, as the infrastructures of refugee camps, and of other law and immigration officials, often prey on children…children can be misled, abused both physically and sexually, and are prime potential victims for trafficking and other horrendous crimes.

Joung-ah Ghedini, a UNHCR spokesperson, spoke of a child Ghedini met in a camp in Burundi, who's parents where killed in a raid. The young girl told Ghedini:

“I don't know what to think about anything. Living here, I don't hear the gunfire, or the shelling, but I’m still scared; maybe I’ll be scared like this for the rest of my life.” Ghedini said of the girl, “Here's an 8-year-old who has survived more than most adults, and she's not griping, not complaining. That's all she knew: being scared about being able to go to sleep at night and not worry.” (National Geographic News; For Refugee Children, “Home” is a Changing Concept)

According to UNHCR there are 20.8 million refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, and persons of concern worldwide, however the 2006 Global Trends:Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons report, states that the number has risen dramatically to 32.9, which is of grave concern, and should be to all persons and states. In the report the UNHCR was unable to get clear statistics on the ages brake down of refugees from the total refugee population, however it is estimated that almost half, or more, of the worlds refugees are children. Additionally it is approximated that half of all refugees,and others of similar status, are female.

Unaccompanied child refugees is of grave concern, due to the specialized needs and protection of their situation, however a full consensus on treatment of these children has yet to have been made. This includes the ages by country which determines their status as an unaccompanied minor. Therefore this is a large gap in the protection of children, and even more so with unaccompanied children, and it is apparent worldwide. As not only are unaccompanied children ripe for violations in refugee camps, but also when in industrialized nations seeking refuge and asylum. The main reason for this gap in protection, is that children are not seen as politically viable and they do not have a strong voice in the system, and without parents, guardians or agencies to protect them, they can be shuffled around even more as stateless citizens. Children often have no documentation, to prove age or origin, and this can often compound the situation even further.

“These migrant children thus labor under the triple burden of alienation, isolation, and minority status. One of the starkest examples of the tension between state law enforcement mandates and a children's rights perspective is found in the asylum system. It is here that children regularly face insuperable hurdles and rights-violating procedures. Far from receiving compassionate or protective state intervention, many migrant children encounter punitive and degrading measures that cast them as delinquents and "urchins," rather than as particularly vulnerable refugees. ” (Triple Burden: The Obstacles to Protection Facing Unaccompanied and Separated Child Migrants Today)

Commenting on the situation of unaccompanied children in the UK, Margaret Lally of the Refugee Council said,

“It's clear from this report that separated refugee children are not getting the same level of care as any other child would receive under UK childcare legislation. But we should never forget that any child is a child first and foremost and a refugee second. We have a duty to these children under domestic and international law and they must be protected.” (Refugee children arriving alone are being left unsupported and unprotected, reveals UK report)

How do we move forward, and ensure that we are working together in a sustainable and collective world effort to assist those who are forced to leave their homes?

Marc Giménez, Campaign coordinator of Federation of Young European Greens, when asked about the situation of refugees stated, “…a high percentage of migrants are young people and thus it is important to create projects which contribute to the exchange of realities between migrants and young activists of destination countries. Only when sharing experiences and working together, we will be able to row in the same direction”.

We need to look at refugees, especially children, for what they are…normal people who have been forced from their homes, who are scared and vulnerable, they need our help and understanding. No one flees their homes in the darkness of the night, with only the clothes on their back, because the want to…refugees are refugees, because they have to be! Whether desperately waiting for war to end in an a bordering country; living in an internal camp to escape natural disaster; or seeking asylum, for fear of persecution and death, in the West, refugees are people just like you and me, who have been forced to live through the unthinkable.

Please see yesterdays post for more information and links. You may also be interested in Child Detainees, An International Crime, posted on April 9, 2007. Please also see my fellow FPA bloggers Cathryn Cullver and Rich Basas,on their Migration Blog, for more information on this and related issues.

UNHCR – State of the World Refugee's 2006
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Refugee Studies Centre
European Council – Refugees and Exiles
Human Rights Watch
Refugees International
American Refugee Committee International
The International Refugee Committee (IRC)
International Committee of the Red Cross Displaced Persons Site
Amnesty International – Refugees
The International Rescue Committee
Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children
Middle East Info – Has a good forum with lots of photos and discussions on refugees
Human Rights Watch – Forgotten Children of War
2006 Global Trends:Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons Report
Trends in Unaccompanied and Separated Children Seeking Asylum in Industrialized Countries
SeparatedRefugee Children in the Untied States: Challenges and Opportunities
American Near East Refugee Aid



Cassandra Clifford

Cassandra Clifford is the Founder and Executive Director of Bridge to Freedom Foundation, which works to enhance and improve the services and opportunities available to survivors of modern slavery. She holds an M.A., International Relations from Dublin City University in Ireland, as well as a B.A., Marketing and A.S., Fashion Merchandise/Marketing from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Cassandra has previously worked in both the corporate and charity sector for various industries and causes, including; Child Trafficking, Learning Disabilities, Publishing, Marketing, Public Relations and Fashion. Currently Cassandra is conducting independent research on the use of rape as a weapon of war, as well as America’s Pimp Culture and its Impact on Modern Slavery. In addition to her many purists Cassandra is also working to develop a series of children’s books.

Cassandra currently resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where she also writes for the Examiner, as the DC Human Rights Examiner, and serves as an active leadership member of DC Stop Modern Slavery.

Areas of Focus:
Children's Rights; Human Rights; Conflict