Child Refugee Migration: a Short-lived Childhood

By Evnur Taran | 2019-10-01 12:00:00

I shook with the explosion. I was shocked. I started shouting: “Help, help!” There were five more boys in the cell. They screamed too. A man came and opened the gate. We ran to the exit. There was smoke all around the place. I went out and saw that the building around the corner was destroyed. There was nothing left. People started running, shouting “Allahuekber” (Allah is one). I saw a man sitting and crying: “My son, my son.”

I could not take it anymore. I left. I ran in the other direction. I wanted to go to my house to my mother. But a van stopped right in front of me, the man said: “More bombs are on the way. Come with us, we can take you to the border.” I refused, I told them that I needed to see my mother. They left. The man shouted: “Go to Turkey! Go to Turkey!”

Then another bomb. I panicked and I cried. People were walking, so many people. I followed them. We walked for hours. We arrived at the border. We queued. When it was my turn, the gendarme looked at me and touched me everywhere. I got angry and told him to stop. He slapped me. He told me to leave my phone. I said I couldn’t. He swung, a big hit to my hand, and I dropped the phone. My mother’s number, her number was in the phone, and I lost her just like that. —Yaman

Yaman was eleven years old at that time. He was jailed by the Assad forces for chanting songs of liberation with other children. His testimony speaks on behalf of six million—according to UNICEF—unaccompanied war victims forced to flee. Eda Elif Tibet, who interviewed Yaman as part of her PhD dissertation,1 notes that Istanbul-based humanitarian workers who had searched for Yaman’s mother, confirmed that she died during the bombing.

A great challenge of our time is to overcome the humanitarian effects of intrastate wars and conflicts. The repercussions of the conflicts and wars of the last three decades remain primary threats to security globally. These proxy intrastate wars not only contribute to human insecurity but also jeopardize the mental well-being of new generations, particularly unaccompanied refugee minors (URM), who are the most vulnerable.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recognizes any child younger than 18 years of age, and any separated from both parents for any reason, as an unaccompanied refugee minor (URM), asylum seeker, or displaced person. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN proclaim that “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.” Accordingly, in most of its 54 articles, the Convention on the Rights of the Child consider children as part of a family unit.

At least forty countries globally have large stateless populations, ranging from ten thousand to over one million. These include Côte d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya, Latvia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. An estimated 70,000 children are born into statelessness each year.2 There will be millions more if countries fail to provide citizenship to the children of Syrian refugees.

Acquiring citizenship for a refugee child is complex. For example, under the laws of their native countries, children born in exile to an Iraqi parent or a Syrian, Somali or Sudanese father are not required to contact consular authorities. They can take their father’s nationality.

The risk of being made stateless

In her ethnographic fieldwork in Sabah (East Malaysia), Catherine Allerton argues that “we need to take seriously people’s sense of exclusion from the nationality to which they feel they belong.” Allerton identifies four ethnic groups of migrant children who are stateless or at risk of being stateless: Rohingya refuges from Burma, Malaysians of Indian descent, members of the traditionally nomadic, boat-dwelling Bajau Laut/Sama Dilaut community, and the children of refugees and migrants in Sabah, north Borneo.3

In Malaysia, children born to migrant/ refugee parents are considered as foreign due to Malaysia’s citizenship law, which does not grant birthright. Likewise, the government of Myanmar denies citizenship to the Rohingya people. Forcing them to migrate to Bangladesh is a violation of their human rights. The Rohingyas have been stripped of their citizenship and rendered stateless by the current citizenship law of Myanmar.

For distressed unaccompanied minors, there are great needs for research and competent child-care workers at the refugee centres. Armed conflicts continue, and the considerable number of war-orphaned children increase. Meanwhile, international institutions and state agents should consider restructuring the camps to protect children surviving on their own. The different needs of an adult refugee; a child who is a part of a refugee family unit; and an unaccompanied minor must be recognized.

Civilians flee their homes for many reasons, including the entry of foreign powers into a local conflict. Whereas adult refugees can make decisions strategically on the basis of sufficient information, young children may not comprehend the situation they are in and must depend on others to survive. Therefore, under the abnormal conditions of refugee camps, the oldest child (if there is one) usually takes on the adult responsibility of caring for younger siblings.

Trapped inside the war

According to UNICEF a total of 2.7 million Syrian children are not in school, and many of them are trapped inside the war-torn country itself. Further, “two million are in areas largely cut off from essential humanitarian aid as a result of fighting and restrictions to access. This includes 700,000 children in areas under ISIL control.”

The little bare feet run on rubble, some grabbed by a parent, some running unprotected alongside the others. They all run without knowing where. They just run to escape. Forced migration impacts a child under any circumstance. Many unaccompanied child refugees are confined to camps. Most are isolated by systemic discrimination, with limited access to food, clean water, and health care. They are also at risk of exploitation, violence, sexual and physical abuse, forced military recruitment, human trafficking, and neglect.

Stateless children’s access to health care, education, and social services are also severely limited. Social service providers also need to collaborate with community health care and mental health service providers to meet their needs. These children face lengthy asylum claim negotiations and forced repatriation. Recent cuts to refugee care programs in Western countries have raised eligibility barriers, and of course cultural issues and language difficulties exacerbate the trauma for children and refugees in general.

By hosting more than 1.2 million child refugees, Turkey has become the top child refugee-hosting country in the world. UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth emphasizes that the refugee child’s only lifeline is education. With help from UNICEF, nearly 400 schools have been built in Turkey; around 20,000 Syrian volunteer teachers have been trained, and approximately 13,000 teachers are on monthly incentives. However, Mr. Forsyth points out that “unless more resources are provided, there is still a very real risk of a ‘lost generation’ of Syrian children.”

Tibet looked into the recent history of the Istanbul facility which provides access to education and social services for the unaccompanied minors. After the EU-Turkey deal4 in 2016, the facility cut the services and transferred the minors to the enclosed refugee camp in Adana. This deprived the children of state protection, which Tibet describes as a life-changing process. Facing exclusion, marginalization, and further criminalization, many of these children escape the camps to survive on their own. Tibet interviewed an expert from the “Save the Children” NGO, who described conditions in the camps: “Turkey is obliged to provide primary education, including language training, and medical care.” However, “the implication of these legal requirements remains haphazard, and there is a great need for monitoring and follow-up.”

Children’s Mental and Physical Well-being

Obligation to learn a new language, culture, and norms creates anxiety for a child refugee. Furthermore, the stressors such as pre-departure difficulties, transnational stress (for instance, the waiting period in refugee centres) and post-arrival stress contributes to psychological anxiety. As Tammy Bean argues: “mental health professionals in host countries are faced with adolescents from a wide variety of cultures and countries in their daily work, leaving a gap between research findings and clinical practices.”5

Although the number of unaccompanied refugee minors’ has increased dramatically in the Netherlands, there is a lack of research and service for URMs. Bean recommends that hosting states urgently accommodate the needs of psychologically distressed URMs by staffing the refugee centres with competent child-care workers. Margarite Kalverboer’s study of unaccompanied minors at four different types of child-rearing facilities in the Netherlands reveals that the facilities of the refugee camps are still unfit environments for them.

People flee their homes for protection and seek asylum with an intention to return home once the situation changes. In many cases as time passes, they realize that they cannot return and must stay in uncongenial refugee camps permanently. Some scholars look for positive aspects in forced displacement. For example, Justin Schon sees the beneficial effects of displacement on civilians. By escaping the conflict zones, they increase their chances to access social aid. These benefits may reduce the impacts of traumatic conditions, and also improve their mental health.

But Lory and Boyle’s reflections on forced migrants in sub-Saharan Africa indicate that receiving countries fail to protect the millions of refugees. They note a study by Médecins Sans Frontières in five internal refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) which shows the main causes for death in the camps are malnutrition, infections, and diarrhea. Poor sanitary conditions and murder are frequently reported as causes for deaths of the children over five years old. Lory and Boyle also point out that a study by Whelan and Blogg at the refugee camps in Uganda, DRC, and Yemen reported that refugees receive substandard services and discrimination at the local hospitals. Hosting states in Africa are already fragile with scarce financial resources, so the influx of refugees is a heavy burden.

A study of Darfur refugees—fleeing from Sudan across the border to Chad—demonstrates that despite the extreme level of violence to which they have been exposed, the lack of basic necessities and safety in the camps appeared as “better predictors of PTSD than war exposure.” In another study of focus groups with youth in the Ampara state of Sri Lanka, daily stressors were identified as contributing to PTSD, depression, anxiety, and psychosocial malfunctioning among three ethnic groups: Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim. However, war exposure remained an important factor for predicting psychiatric symptomatology.

Unaccompanied Minors, Stateless Children and International Institutions

Article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to children seeking refugee status “whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person.” Considering that hundreds of parentless children flee armed conflict regions on their own, the wording “whether unaccompanied or accompanied” in the article fails to address the children’s situation. In fleeing war zones, acute parent-child separation differs distinctly from cross-border migration in which separation might be preventable.

The Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council developed a comprehensive research analysis on the issues of unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents. This report offered guidance for the States Parties to the Convention to ensure that their commitments on “the rights of the child and other relevant human rights treaties are fulfilled.” Most States couldn’t provide accurate data about the conditions of unaccompanied children in response to the questionnaires. The Advisory Committee argue that the “lack of information about their situation is one of the most important barriers faced by institutions and states seeking to effectively protect their rights.”

However, considering the increasing number of asylum seekers and the limited capacities of the hosting countries, presumably financial burdens are the most important barriers to protecting their rights. Turkey, for example, is hosting a serious number of forced-displaced migrants from neighbouring countries, mostly from Syria. By the end of 2017, about 3.5 million Syrians registered for temporary protection in Turkey. There are also an estimated 100 thousand to 300 thousand unregistered asylum seekers in Turkey.

According to the Centre for Asylum and Migration Studies (IGAM), “more than 295 thousand Syrian babies were born in Turkey since 2011. In 2017, there is an average of 306 births per day.” Registered Syrians living both inside and outside the centres can benefit from health services and incentives. However, unregistered Syrians have access only to “contagious and epidemic prevention and emergency medical services.” Although UNHCR accepts the fact that Turkey has far exceeded its capacity for hosting Syrians, it supports only humanitarian aid and policy formation. Thus, the lack of financial aid and funding impact the lives of asylum seekers, particularly unaccompanied children.

Disease, Malnutrition, and Culture Shock

Children often encounter other conflicts on their way. Resettlement may involve lengthy stops in several camps. According to UNHCR, “[nearly] 46% of all refugees are under 18 years old; women and girls account for 48% of the refugee population in the world.” UNICEF draws attention, for example, to the dangerous Central Mediterranean migration journey from North Africa to Italy:

“At least 200 children have died while crossing the Central Mediterr­anean from North Africa to Italy so far this year, [2017], a rate of more than one child per day, according to the latest estimates from UNICEF. Between 1 January and 23 May, more than 45,000 refugees and migrants arrived at Italy by sea. … This includes some 5,500 unaccompanied and separated children, an increase of 22 per cent from 2016, who account for approximately 92 per cent of all children arriving at Italy via the Central Mediterranean route.”

Children are also exposed to infectious diseases, malnutrition, and culture shock. According to the UNHCR, Rohingya are the most persecuted people in the world, and many Rohingya child refugees are unaccompanied minors in the refugee camps. They face systematic discrimination and restrictions on their movements. Beside the lack of protection, access to health care and education is also very limited. They are often denied access to health care, legal recourse and protection, social infrastructure, and adequate housing.

The Convention Relating to Stateless Persons article 1(1) defines a stateless person as someone “who is not recognized as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”6 The nationality of children who are born to refugees or forced-displaced parents generally remains uncertain because parents cannot approach the authorities of their native country. In general, jus soli (birthright) provision is absence in many hosting countries. “Failure of inability to register a child at birth means the child has no way of proving their nationality.”

Turkey is one of the State Parties to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, with the dramatic increase of the Syrian refugee crises, it has revised its legislation and citizenship laws. In general, the state follows jus sanguinis (right of blood) to provide citizenship to a child born to a Turkish parent. However, to protect a child from being statelessness, if a child is born to refugee parents who cannot provide their country’s citizenship, then the child can acquire Turkish citizenship at birth. Though amendments of its citizenship and refugee laws reflect Turkey’s commitment to humanitarian values and provide some protection, the Syrian refugees remain temporary refugees and are often subject to exploitation. For example, “thousands of children are being used as illegal child labor in several industries, and … child refugees have been subjected to sexual exploitation.”7 In 25 countries, including Lebanon, Nepal and the Bahamas, due to gender discrimination, women cannot pass their nationality onto their children on an equal basis as men; this can leave children stateless.

Before accepting asylum seekers, the hosting countries’ refugee centres and camps—and their physical and financial capacities—must be monitored by UN representatives to prevent overcrowding and reduce the sources of distress, especially to children. Refugee crises are multidimensional and geopolitical. The most urgent challenge is to identify universally sustainable solutions.

Evnur Taran is an editor of Peace.

h2#notes. Endnotes

1 Tibet, Eda Elif. “Escaping Exclusion.” Movements 3, vol. 2, 2017.

2 Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI)

3 Allerton, Catherine. “Statelessness and the Lives of the Children of Migrants in Sabah, East Malaysia.” LSE Research Online, August 2014.

4 EU-Turkey deal (European Commission 2016); Turkey agreed to accept receiving migrants deported from the Greek Islands.

5 Bean, Tammy, Elisabeth Eurelings-Bontekoe, Eric Broekaert, and Philip Spinhoven. “Comparing Psychological Distress, Traumatic Stress Reactions, and Experiences of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors With Experiences of Adolescents Accompanied by Parents.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 195, vol. 4, April 2007.

6 See: UNHCR, Expert Meeting – The Concept of Stateless Persons Under International Law (Summary Conclusions – 2010).

7 Howard, David M. “Analyzing the Causes of Statelessness in Syrian Refugee Children.” Texas International Law Journal 52, vol. 2, 2017.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019

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