Refugee Children, Victims of War and Want

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 19, 2003

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Ten year-old Nicole has been living in a refugee camp for four years. She doesn't know what became of her parents; all she really remembers about her homeland is leaving.

"We came to Tanzania by boat. We were very many people running and pushing because of the fighters, because they were coming," she told Charles London, a research associate with Refugees International.

Nicole goes to school each morning, but only if her grandmother doesn't need her for chores and her clothes are clean and in good enough shape not to embarrass her. She rarely makes eye contact with the person to whom she's speaking.

Of the 35 million people who have had to flee their homes in the face of persecution and armed conflict, more than 17 million are children. Close to 8 million of them live in camps supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The rest are living on the outskirts of cities, in villages, or in extremely remote areas of the countryside.

"The problem of children is widely discussed in terms of child trafficking, child soldiers, sex slaves, and lack of education," said Ken Bacon, executive Director of Refugees International. "What we don't get from these meta-topics is a sense of the incredible emotional strain on these kids. If you listen to their stories, it's heartbreaking."

The UNHCR camps do their best to provide a safe haven, food, water, medical care, and primary schools for children.

But it's not enough to address just the physical needs, said Marie de la Soudiere, Director of Children Affected by Armed Conflict for the International Rescue Committee. Their psychosocial needs must be addressed as well.

"Displacement can take a tremendous toll on children," she said. "Particularly when armed conflict is involved, the move can be extremely sudden, and to lose everything can be very traumatic. The first thing we try do for children as they come into the camps we call 'emergency education.' We try to set up structured activities, a routine, so the children will know what is going to come next.

"We used to say this is what we do after the bombs stop falling, but in Sarajevo we found it was extraordinarily effective even within the conflict. It takes the children's minds off what's going on outside the camp and allows them to focus on something positive," she said.

While life in the camps, which are essentially tent cities that can be home to anywhere from 200 to 800,000 people, can be tough for younger children, for adolescents, it can be absolutely wretched.

Continued on Next Page >>


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