– Forced to flee wars and disasters, sometimes without family, and struggling to survive in the worst of circumstances, children on the move have long led very precarious lives. Be they refugees, internally displaced or asylum seekers, vulnerable and marginalised, they lose years of childhood. They are exposed to the worst forms of abuse, such as commercial exploitation and violence. Today, their situation is dire as they remain at the very bottom of the list to receive emergency measures to protect them from the impacts of COVID-19.
Still, there is a deafening silence on the nature of a rescue package for the ultra-vulnerable child population.
Speaking on the second and final day of the Fair Share of Children Summit held virtually, Nobel laureates, leading international figures and heads of the United Nations agencies, who include the Dalai Lama, 2014 Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, Dr. Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Leymah Gbowee, and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven have dispelled all doubt that without this package, the fallout of COVID-19 will be borne by the world’s most marginalised children.
Seme Ludanga Faustino has lived experiences of being a refugee. The co-founder of I CAN South Sudan, a registered refugee-led organisation, stated that the closure of schools and many other child-friendly spaces would be most devastating for displaced children as this is where they learn to cope and heal from traumatic experiences.
“These are children who need structured engagement the most. Even worse, many of them are now separated from their caregivers, who are often fellow refugees. One way to help these children is to support their caregivers to support this child population,” he advised.
With U.N Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates indicating that 50 million children are on the move in the world today and millions more affected by migration, now more than ever, a rescue package is needed for the world’s most marginalised and impoverished children.
Similarly, a newly launched report by the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation titled “A Fair Share For Children: Preventing the loss of a generation to COVID-19” paints a disturbing picture of the harms and vulnerabilities facing children on the move. The number of children on the move has increased every year for at least a decade, and it is more likely now that the numbers will only grow during and post COVID-19.
The report further indicates that as of the end of March this year, the G20 countries alone had already committed over $5 trillion towards protecting the global economy. Since additional commitments from high-income countries have brought the figure to $8 trillion – a large chunk of this money will be used to protect businesses.
Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate, stated that real change would begin when resources are directed where they are most needed.
Notably, there is still minimal movement at the national and international levels to address the non-health impacts of COVID-19 on the most marginalised citizens. The report further states that to date, “little is being actively spent on targeted interventions to support the almost 20 percent of children living on two dollars or less per day.”
Against this backdrop, a session, dubbed “Increased Vulnerability of Children on the Move”, examined the increased challenges and risks faced by children on the move due to COVID-19 such as the impact of new legislation imposed due to the pandemic, and explore ways to protect this deeply marginalised child population.
Session moderator Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, emphasised on the need to explore solutions.
Josie Naughton, CEO, Help Refugees, spoke of the need for political will as it is a sure way to the change that is needed for vulnerable child population.
Abraham Keita, a youth activist and 2015 International Children’s Peace Prize Winner, was born during Liberia’s brutal civil war and his father, a driver for a humanitarian organisation was killed in an ambush when he was only five years old.
He grew up in the densely populated informal settlements of West Point, Liberia in extreme poverty and great difficulties. But as those closest to the numbers are often the ones closest to the solutions, he said that beyond statistics are real lives. Keita emphasised that appealing for political will is not enough and that people must appeal to the moral conscience.
The “A Fair Share for Children” report reveals that by mid-April, 167 countries had closed their borders, and at least 57 states made no exception for people seeking asylum.
This is despite ongoing “168 armed conflicts, 15 wars and 23 limited wars. One in 10 children are living in zones of conflict,” said Philip Jennings, co-president, International Peace Bureau, 1910 Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation.
“We have this peace deficit which COVID-19 only makes worse the conditions of children on the move. I want world leaders and laureates to talk about peace. We need a global ceasefire. Sustainable peace has to be the message from us to the children,” he said.
The U.N. Refugee Agency’s most recent Global Trends report indicates that as of the of 2019, the number of refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and asylum-seekers was at an all-time high with an estimated 79.5 million people, of which 13 million children were refugees.
Equally alarming, 400,000 asylum applications were made by children unaccompanied by any family member. Overall, at least 18 million children were internally displaced by conflicts or disasters.
The “A Fair Share for Children” report warns that as refugee camps are neither designed nor equipped for pandemics such as COVID-19, simple protective measures such as hand washing and social distancing are next to impossible to achieve. The report states that the maximum standards for a typical camp “call for a maximum of 120 people to one water tap and 3.5 square meters of living space per person. Most, if not all, refugee camps are operating beyond this capacity.”
Child rights experts now say that the world is sitting on a catastrophe, as these children will experience even deeper exclusion from any kind of social protection measures or safety nets.
Speakers at the summit, including Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, decried the fact that even before the pandemic, fundamental public services including education, healthcare, hygiene and sanitation, nutrition and child protection not to mention resettlement and asylum services, were already lacking for this extremely vulnerable child population.
He said that poverty had gotten even worse, there is a decline in migrant remittances and that many refugees who had temporary jobs, lost them.
“Extreme poverty is considered an act of violence, so right now, there is violence and injustice committed against children on the move in particular. More government support is needed and direct financial support not just for NGOs but for small businesses, including those owned by refugees. Countries must stop separating families and turning down asylum seekers,” he said today.
Marianna Vardinoyannis, U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Goodwill Ambassador and 2020 U.N. Nelson Mandela Prize Laureate urged participants and governments to open their eyes to the suffering of children on the move.
“There is so much that we do not see that defines the traumatic lives of these children. As we built better post COVID, education must be a priority for displaced children. Without an education, the children will lack the tools they need to rebuild their lives,” she cautioned.