International law defines refugees as people who have fled their homes due to conflict situations or the threat of persecution; they are not to be returned to the situations they fled from nor are they to be expelled1. Members of the international community have a duty to protect refugees, a duty which was affirmed in the aftermath of World War II with the ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention2 which gave birth to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (a programme under the United Nations tasked with the protection and support as well as in assisting with the voluntary repatriation of refugees).
The protection of refugees has many aspects, including safety from being returned to danger, access to fair and efficient asylum procedures as well as measures to ensure that their basic human rights are respected while they secure a longer-term solution.
Half of the world’s refugees are children, half of which come from three war-torn countries; Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia3. This means that millions of children in the 21st century have grown up with the uncertainty and fear that comes with being forced to leave their homes due to ongoing conflict in search of the “promised land”- where there is freedom, democracy and a brighter future. The situation in war-torn countries often results in children being forced to flee their homes on their own; putting them at an even higher risk of exploitation, forced labour and trafficking4. Upon arrival, these refugee children find that their “promised land” does not always live up to expectations; as many of them face the risk of “falling through the cracks” because they do not have the necessary documentation for recognition in their destination country nor do they have a certain legal status5. The absence of legal documents means that these children are at risk of missing out on services such as health care and education; they end up falling behind their peers in peaceful countries in terms of education, physical development as well as economic prospects, thus creating a cycle of poverty and illiteracy among the community of refugees. The girl child is even more vulnerable as she faces the threat of being raped, the threat of forced prostitution and/or child marriage in order to escape poverty. Teenage pregnancy is another factor that the girl child is faced with on her journey to the “promised land”. Xenophobia and discrimination are also some of the challenges that await the children upon landing in their destination countries.
According to Save the Children, 68 000 children tried to flee violence by crossing the border between United States of America and Mexico in 2014 and nearly 200 000 unaccompanied minors have applied for asylum in Europe since 2008; 96 000 in 2015 alone6. Children from Afghanistan make up more than half of the population of the world’s unaccompanied minors travelling to Europe.
The international community is currently failing refugee children which will not only affect their future but that of the international community as a whole. The plight of most refugees lasts up to 20 years, meaning that some refugee children spend their entire childhood displaced. This is the time during which these children need to acquire the skills and knowledge that will enable them to rebuild their countries post conflict. The founding principles of the United Nations and all its agencies require that countries work together in order to attain and maintain the protection of human rights, something which seems to only be good on paper. Rich countries are still treating refugees as somebody else’s problem, hiding behind closed borders and fears of being “flooded” while they conveniently allow poorer, mainly Middle Eastern, African and South Asian countries, to host an incredible 86% of all refugees. Countries spend millions on erecting high concrete walls and/or barbed wire fences7 designed to keep refugees out instead of spending this money on programmes that will enable these refugees to rebuild their life and countries.
Leaders in the international community have and continue to allow the increase of a humanitarian crisis, by ignoring the plight of refugee children, which will be inherited by the next generation of adults. The refugee children crisis can ultimately be resolved through the end of conflicts and persecution that forces children to leave their homes unaccompanied in the first place, but since no one knows when that will happen what is needed is for countries to remember that they signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and actually uphold it.
The implementation of the Refugee Convention is not impossible, it just needs radical and visionary leaders who will be willing to lead global co-operation aimed at changing the bleak future faced by refugee children instead of hiding behind concrete walls and wire fences. The election of former High Commissioner of Refugees8, António Guterres, as the next Secretary General of the United Nations9 could be the first step towards the necessary implementation of the Refugee Convention since he was able to fundamentally reform the organisation, extend its emergency response capacity and highlight the plight of poorly publicised refugee crisis.
Ms Remofiloe Lobakeng holds a BA Hons in International Politics from UNISA and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD
2 The 1951 Refugee Convention was signed by 144 state parties, it outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations that states to protect them.
8 António Guterres served as United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, the second-longest term in the organisation’s history.
9 The Secretary-General elect will assume office in January 2017.