Africa's child refugees

2010-03-17 08:03

Cape Town - With a plate in her hand, she slowly follows behind others in a queue until her turn to be served comes. Potatoes and beans are the day’s menu. Her mind seems far away as she doesn’t join in the chats and giggles that other young girls of her age are engaged in. Moments later, she wraps herself with a blanket, one of the hundreds that an aid group donated a few weeks ago. In no time, she is sleeping soundly only to wake up the following morning to face the same routine of life in a refugee camp.
Anita (not real name) is one amongst thousands of Africa’s young children who have been unfortunate to have their lives “messed up” at a tender age. She was only six years old when her parents were killed in an ambush in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Goma district. She had to join other villagers who survived the attack as they fled their homes for refuge in neighbouring Congo Brazzaville. Life for her has not been better and she faces a bleak future.   
Recent years have seen a surge in the number of child refugees or displaced children as conflicts and wars continue to ravage various parts of the African continent. Somalia, for example, has civilians fleeing their homes almost daily as they fear endless battles between Islamist insurgents and the government backed forces.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has also seen an influx in the number of refugees as fighting remains intense with tribal clashes also forcing thousands to flee their homes. And now with the Darfur truce deal signed in Sudan recently, it can only be hoped that life returns to normal in that region, which for years has contributed immensely to the number of Africa’s refugees.

 In southern Africa, it is South Africa which has become home to refugees from a number of politically and economically unstable nations such as Zimbabwe.

Arduous expedition

Stephen Blight, chief of Child Protection for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in South Africa, told News24 that the country had over the past years experienced a growing influx of migrant children from neighbouring countries, many of whom arrived unaccompanied by parents or caregivers.

“In the past year, this has become an acute problem, creating an extraordinary situation for South African social services and other government departments to address. The highest concentration of unaccompanied migrant children can be found in the Musina border area and Gauteng province,” said Blight.

Of particular concern could be the risks that these children face on the move, particularly as they cross the border illegally through bushes and across the river.

 “Not only are there physical threats due to the arduous expedition, children also constantly report being attacked, robbed and subjected to other forms of violence, often by criminal gangs,” said Blight.

He said girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Statistics released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders) reveal that from April to September 2009, 84 cases of gender based violence for counselling were recorded of which only two were formally reported to the police.

Of these cases, 40% were gang rapes. Blight said this represented only a fraction of actual cases as the levels of abuse were high in this area with cases of armed threats also being reported from time to time.

Limited resources

Blight said South Africa, under its Children’s Act 2005 regarded children on the move as “children in need of care and protection”. However, "implementation capacities have been overstretched in responding to high rates of violence against children and the huge burden of caring for orphans and vulnerable children in a context of HIV/Aids”.

He also said although it was the duty of the state to co-ordinate the registration of these children and put necessary systems in place to trace their families, it had become impossible to meet these obligations due to limited resources.

At a special summit for refugees held in Kampala, Uganda last year, African Union member states undertook to enhance the protection of civilians is situations of armed conflict, based on international humanitarian law, taking particular note of the special needs of women and children.

In a statement sent to News24, the AU indicated that a commission had been put in place with a goal to ensure that the IDP (Internally Displaced People) Convention was ratified and came into force by 2011.

“The Commission has initiated a roadmap under the theme “commitment to action”, to move the agenda on forced displacement beyond Kampala special Summit. A draft plan is being finalised through an inclusive consultative process, involving partners. The plan serves to implement measures recommended by the Special Summit in addressing forced displacement on the continent,” the AU stated.

Lack of personal security

The AU noted that member state experts and ministries in charge of refugees were expected to consider the plan in May after which it (the plan) would be submitted to a July ordinary summit for adoption.

The organisation indicated some of the challenges faced by displaced children as they remained at risk of sexual violence and exploitation.

“More than any other group, children – whether displaced within their own country or forced across international borders - are the most exposed, particularly to violence and exploitation. A number of factors combine to heighten their protection risks. Chief among them is a lack of personal security whether living in camps, collective centres or with host families,” the statement revealed.

The AU condemned the continued displacement of people in Africa as a result of conflicts as these often resulted in the forced recruitment of children – both boys and girls – by armed groups and even national military forces.

“The reality is that many children, who constitute the future of Africa, have lost their lives or suffered traumatic and irreparable physical and psychological injuries as a result of conscription into fighting forces. Many grow up without education as a result.”

Survival sex

“All of Africa’s children, including refugee children, should be enabled to reap the long-term benefits of education. Education is the key to the future, not only for an individual child but the continent as a whole. Africa’s leaders must resolve that children have no place in war in accordance with the spirit of the African Youth Charter of 2 July 2006 and the AU Policy of Access to Post primary Education for victims of forced displacement in Africa,” the AU noted.

What has also come to be an issue are reports that some women refugees are turning into prostitution probably to solicit money to eke a living. Such are devastating reports as the children living in refugee camps are there to watch these things happen.

“In many displacement situations, the absence of livelihoods pushes women and children into survival sex as the only means to provide for themselves.  Often they are deprived of food, water, education, health care and other essentials.  Poverty and the inability to access basic services may also compel women and children, especially girls to exchange sex for food or other necessities,” the AU stated.

The organisation said it was unfortunate that in most circumstances such dynamics led to early or forced marriages and to other forms of exploitation and abuse.

“In many cases, children drop out of school and grow up without education as they focus on the more immediate needs including finding food and staying alive as well as minding the welfare of their younger siblings. They are forced into adulthood or experience the different natural stages of child development. Although many children have shown resilience under such circumstances, their adverse experiences will have long-term consequences in their lives,” the AU said.

Statistics reveal that there are 17 million refugees and displaced across the African continent.