Toward Mediating the Impact of Forced Migration and Displacement among Children Affected by Armed Conflict

By Bruce, Beverlee | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Toward Mediating the Impact of Forced Migration and Displacement among Children Affected by Armed Conflict


Bruce, Beverlee, Journal of International Affairs


"It is estimated that women and children in both categories--refugees and IDPs--make up over 80 percent of displaced populations worldwide, and in specific cases even greater percentages."

INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as someone with a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." (1) Additionally, the Convention dictates that the persecuted individual must be located "outside the country of his or her nationality." (2) There are now over 22 million people around the globe who fulfill these two criteria and are recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international agency responsible for refugee protection and assistance. (3) Established in 1951, its initial five-year tenure has lasted for over 50 years because refugee crises persist.

In the five decades since the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was written, circumstances around the world have changed dramatically. Increasing numbers of people are fleeing armed conflicts and civil wars to seek asylum as refugees in neighboring countries en masse. In practice, members of such populations, both adults and children, are granted refugee status, prima facie. But refugee status, and hence protection, are conditional on the persecuted person leaving his or her country of origin and crossing an international border. However, there are large numbers of persons unable or unwilling to cross an international boundary, but nevertheless require protection to the same degree as refugees. Those who remain in their country of origin are known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and constitute a much larger group than refugees. (4) It is estimated that women and children in both categories--refugees and IDPs--make up over 80 percent of displaced populations worldwide, and in specific cases even greater percentages. (5)

During every forced migration, whether it is internal or across borders, there are children who become separated from their families. It is estimated that between two to five percent of a given displaced population is composed of separated children. Unfortunately, such children are often exploited and suffer not only the psychological trauma of being separated from their families, but the mental and physical injuries that result from malnutrition, sexual and physical abuse, forced labor, lack of medical attention, and lost education. More than any other at-risk group, they require protection and assistance from the international community, which is responsible for providing family tracing activities that lead to family reunification and eventual community reintegration.

This essay details the primary issues refugee and internally displaced children face during and after exposure to armed conflict. Some of the issues include the care and reunification of children separated from their families; the creation and administration of effective educational and vocational training programs for different categories of children in refugee camps and in environments where they have been resettled; and the demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers. The essay also describes the structure, experience and efforts of the institutions and groups involved in aiding displaced children and provides a current analysis of the available support mechanisms used to help these affected groups. Finally, three case studies illustrate the predicament of children affected by and involved in armed conflict. The first two describe how the Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, abduct children for use as child soldiers. The third, about The Lost Boys of Sudan, is an example of resettling children who have survived armed conflict. …

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