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.

"While in their village they may have been able to go to school, in the camps they have to take care of younger siblings, or spend their time gathering wood, collecting water, or doing the cooking," said UNHCR spokesperson Joung-Ah Ghedini. "The boys may now be potential breadwinners for their families. For others, there's nothing to do all day. And there is no funding available for higher education."

Children On Their Own

While aid workers try to help children in the larger population restructure their lives and regain a sense of normalcy, there is another group of children who need even more.

"The children who are the worst off by far are those who have been separated from their parents," said Anne Edgerton, an advocate for Refugees International. "Economically these children are absolutely in the worst strata in the camp. These are the kids you'll see with clothes just falling off of them, no shoes. Some of these children aren't allowed to go to school because they have to do the chores for the families who have taken them in."

"Maybe 3 to 5 percent of the children have lost their parents," said de la Soudiere. "The number varies tremendously. "The figures were not as high in Kosovo or Iraq. In certain regions of Africa, the numbers can be quite high."

In fact, the numbers in some cases can be staggering.

"Kakuma camp in Kenya has more than 100,000 people and the majority are adolescents," said Edgerton. "These are the 'lost boys and girls' from Sudan who were separated from their families during the fighting. They're essentially orphans, not living in intact families."

Separated children often live in child-headed households, where the head of the family is the oldest sister.

"A 15-year-old girl without the protection of an adult is much more vulnerable to recruitment to prostitution or sexual violence," said Edgerton.

Mathilde, a 13-year-old refugee from Burundi living in a camp in Tanzania, is such a case.

"I do not like collecting firewood," she says of her daily chore. "Others come and attack us while we gather wood. They come and beat us and kill us."

For Mathilde, who has been attacked in the past, every day is a matter of running a gauntlet of fear. She has lost her parents, and lives with other children who have been separated from their parents. The adult refugees in her camp have organized an escort program to protect women and girls while gathering firewood in remote areas, and the sexual violence has declined somewhat. But young girls remain vulnerable; they're safer to attack, and thought to be less likely to have a sexually transmitted disease or AIDS. For Mathilde, there is no adult to turn to should it happen again.

Girls are not the only ones at risk. Adolescent boys, with nothing to do in the camps, are also extremely vulnerable to recruitment, whether forced or voluntary, by armed factions.

"It's easy to talk kids into anything," said Edgerton. "They're more than willing to buy the whole pie in the sky, 'we have a future for you, there's no future for you here,' and if there's any kind of massacre in the background, it's easy for recruiters to tell them there are bad guys out there, and we'll get the people who killed your parents. When you add that to 13 and 14-year-old bravado…"

Child Soldiers

More than half a million children have been recruited as child soldiers by government armed forces, civil militia, paramilitaries, and rebel groups, according to a global survey published by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. At least 300,000 are actively fighting in 41 countries. Some are as young as seven years old.

Children in camps close to borders are particularly vulnerable to forced recruitment.

"In some places the militia just go through camps and take a whole school," said de la Soudiere. "Sometimes there's nothing you can do. They come with a gun and just take the kids. In Liberia right now kids are hiding in bushes; they're afraid to return to the camps because they know they'll be taken."

Armed factions see child soldiers as cheap—many are paid nothing and live on what they can steal—malleable, and plentiful.

"The brutality of some of these rebel groups is something you don't want to even think about," said de la Soudiere. "Their aim is to break the spirit of the child, and they do this by forcing them to commit atrocities, to kill their friends, to maim people."

In addition to acting as soldiers, children are used as spies, messengers, sentries, porters, servants, and sexual slaves.

"We were distributed to men and I was given to a man who had just killed his woman," relates a 14-year-old Ugandan girl who was abducted by a rebel group called the Lords Resistance Army (LRA). "I was not given a gun, but I helped in the abductions and grabbing of food from villagers. Girls who refused to become LRA wives were killed in front of us to serve as a warning to the rest of us."

To fighting forces, children are also expendable.

"During the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1999 and 2000, Ethiopian government forces abducted thousands of secondary school students, and used them in human-wave attacks across minefields," said Bacon. "In Sri Lanka, girls, many of them orphans, have been recruited by the anti-government Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and trained as suicide bombers because they can evade government security."

Crisis as Opportunity

Crisis can sometimes become an opportunity, says de la Soudiere.

"In Afghanistan, people we're working with are demanding education," she said. "Twenty years ago, no one would think of that, especially in places where there was discrimination against little girls to go to school. But a lot of these people were in camps and they're used to that [educating girls]. And they want it to continue."

Ghedini concurs.

"We found working with kids in areas that are torn by ethnic divisions, such as in the Balkans, education can play a part in breaking down some of those stereotypes," she said. "In Bosnia, we found that having kids play on football (soccer in the U.S.) teams really helped. Parents would come to watch their kids play, and not immediately, but after a while they started being friendly with one another, if not friends. When activities were structured so that the kids saw themselves as pulling for a team, they could get past some of the ethnic enmities."

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