Protecting Refugee Children During the Pandemic

Taima’a al-Hariri, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, had been regularly attending school before the Jordanian authorities introduced a necessary lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“When the coronavirus appeared, they shut down all the classrooms and we didn’t have teachers we could interact with anymore,” Taima’a says. “I was starting to do charity work with [refugee] children with cancer, but that was put on hold.”

Although the pandemic has affected children and young people around the world, refugees like Taima’a have been especially hard hit. These children have long suffered multiple deprivations: they were forced to flee wars and emergencies, sometimes without family, and are struggling to survive with no familiar comforts. And now COVID-19 is exacerbating their hardships.

Even before the pandemic, only half of the world’s refugee children of primary-school age were receiving formal education, and only 22% of children of lower-secondary-school age were. Moreover, children living in extreme poverty – including refugees – are vulnerable to forced labor and trafficking, putting them at further risk of being out of school.

Lack of access to formal education is just one of many challenges that refugees face. Health care and sanitation – critical to protecting large refugee populations living in camps – were already inadequate before COVID-19 struck. And with parents now less able to put food on the table for their children, starvation is a far greater threat than the pandemic itself, as recent warnings and budget cuts by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization have made clear.

Today, 80% of refugees live in countries that are not equipped to support them. Turkey is home to 3.7 million refugees, while Uganda, Pakistan, and Sudan together host almost four million. Jordan and Lebanon have long been home to refugees, who account for almost one-third of each country’s population. Because over half of the world’s 26 million refugees are children – some 300,000 of whom are unaccompanied – defending their rights is a vast challenge.

We are working on the ground with youth activists from the 100 Million campaign for children’s rights, who are continuing their efforts despite COVID-19. They include Seme Ludanga Faustino, a South Sudanese refugee who in 2017 co-founded the youth-led organization I CAN South Sudan in the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, home to the world’s biggest concentration of unaccompanied minors. Faustino’s organization, which was set up to use the arts to provide trauma relief to unaccompanied children, has shifted to distributing soap and conducting home visits to teach them how to keep themselves safe from the coronavirus.

Against this background, rich-country governments are behaving shamefully, spending trillions of dollars to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on their economies while leaving countries with large refugee and displaced populations struggling to cope. In April, for example, a funding shortfall led the WFP to announce a 30% cut in the food rations that it distributes to more than 1.4 million refugees in Uganda.

A small fraction of the pandemic bailout funds so far made available in Europe and the United States could save the lives of tens of thousands of refugees. We therefore urge governments to fill the gaps in financing for refugees and displaced persons immediately, and ensure that the most marginalized populations receive their fair share of the COVID-19 response. To achieve this, a global social protection fund should be established, to be made available to every child who qualifies for support, including refugees who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s fallout.

Canceling the debt owed in 2020 and 2021 by low-income countries that house refugee populations could also have a huge impact. Although creditor countries are suspending repayments, this merely kicks the can down the road.

Yet, while calling for action in the short term, we must not forget about what needs to happen next. As European Union leaders prepare to finalize a new migration and asylum pact, we call on them to ensure that every refugee child on EU territory is guaranteed the rights enshrined in European legal frameworks. Since 2010, thousands of unaccompanied refugee children have gone missing from Europe, with many having likely fallen victim to trafficking. We demand dedicated efforts to protect this group, including the relocation of the 5,000 unaccompanied children currently living in limbo in Greece.

Every refugee child also must have access to quality education. Jordan, for example, has successfully provided refugee families with cash transfers to ensure that their children go to school. But more than 75 million children (including those who have been internally displaced) urgently need educational support. Governments must fill the current $8.5 billion financing gap in this area so that children can enjoy their fundamental right to learn.

It has never been more important for the world to stand behind refugees, especially refugee children. After this pandemic is over, we will be judged on how well we protected the world’s most vulnerable people, including those who have been displaced by conflicts and emergencies that they had no role in creating. Their rights, like those of every child, are non-negotiable. Right now, we are failing them.

(Authors Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is the founder of Laureates and Leaders for Children, Honorary President of the Global March Against Child Labor, and the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement and HRH Prince Ali bin Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a member of the Laureates and Leaders for Children Steering Committee.)

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