Half of refugees worldwide are children under the age of 18.
They face violence, disease, malnutrition and death. Adolescents, in particular, face the additional risks of being trafficked, recruited by armed groups, abducted, exploited or raped.
These dangers and the need for effective humanitarian response are recognized in the procedures by which refugees are granted international protection, a process that covers all stages from arrival to reception, registration and Refugee Status Determination (RSD) and, ultimately, a durable solution. However, the way that these procedures are delivered can pay inadequate attention to children, whose risks, experiences, perceptions and ways of expressing themselves differ from those of adults. For example, the type of locations for protection interviews leading to registration and RSD, the formal approach and the style of the interviews can all create barriers that prevent children from being able to share their protection concerns.
As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has acknowledged, the increased participation of refugee children could benefit efforts to protect them.
Between February and June 2012, I worked with refugee children in the Kyaka II Refugee Settlement in Uganda to conduct empirical research aimed at mapping children’s experiences of the refugee protection process and exploring their ideas for change. The research was funded by UNHCR and the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and conducted as part of a post-doctoral thesis at the Centre for Migration Policy Research at Swansea University. The aim was to explore a more child-friendly refugee protection process for children. More than 300 refugee children aged 6–16 participated in the workshops as part of the research. These participatory, activity-based workshops used child-friendly methods including drawing, role play, puppetry and games.
During the workshops, children outlined the barriers they faced in refugee protection procedures: environments, methods and approaches not accessible for children. Refugee children spoke about the hardships they faced upon arrival at the settlement and while living in the Reception Centre, which together with a lack of information and support in an unfamiliar environment made it hard for them to share their views and concerns. In relation to protection interviews for registration and RSD, children said that they faced physical hardships such as distance travelled, hunger and delays. Once they made it to the interview, they often found it difficult to respond because of the way some interviewers and interpreters conducted themselves towards children – in their use of language, style of questioning, general attitude and approach.
In the face of such challenges, children were able to come up with ideas and solutions to meet their own and other children’s protection needs. Children’s suggestions included peer support for newly arrived children by pupils from the settlement’s schools; a child-friendly poster placed at the Reception Centre explaining the refugee protection procedures to come; opportunities for play while waiting for protection interviews; and interviewers who treat children’s concerns with urgency and give them enough time to share their views and concerns.
Such suggestions from children help outline a more child-friendly approach to the refugee protection process.
While the objectives of the refugee protection procedures themselves do not change, the way that they are delivered does – and such learning needs to be disseminated for practice to change. The findings from the empirical research from Kyaka II have been written up as a UNHCR Guidance Note on Child Friendly Procedures, to be circulated globally, organization-wide. Presentations have also been delivered to protection agencies other than UNHCR, for example to member agencies of the global Child Protection Working Group.
In a context where children are often the majority of the refugee population, there is no place for a refugee protection process that cannot make their needs a matter of core concern. The demographics of displacement require that we re-think refugee protection in these more child-friendly terms. Similarly, refugee children’s participation in the innovation process and their ideas for change suggest that we should also re-think our views on ‘the child’. Children are more than capable – in their own time and in their own ways – of exploring how things are done and whether this is the best way to do them. At the very least, when considering innovation in programming for children, they should be engaged as innovators themselves.