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Safeguarding child refugees is everyone’s responsibility

Mercy (9) recounts her loss and the ensuing journey to Busia, Uganda with stoic resignation. She recalls a burnt homestead, a missing mother, two brothers who had “disappeared” and a nightmarish 14-day trek from Yei in South Sudan. She recalls following an adult neighbour, detouring into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and finally to safety in Uganda.

Mercy’s story is by no means unique.

Every day an average of 1000 children are fleeing conflict in South Sudan. There are presently 2.6-million refugees in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. More than half are children.

Amid such startling statistics, children are being deprived of their childhood, of the opportunity to play, learn and grow, and too often of the opportunity of being with their family.

A child is a child, everywhere, regardless of who they are or where they are from. Now more than ever, as leaders meet for the global Solidarity Summit on Refugees today in Kampala, it is important for us to focus on the refugee crisis in this region. A region in which the crisis wears the face of a child.

More than one million children have been forced from their homes in South Sudan, often amid horrific violence. In countless trips to South Sudan and across this region, many of us have met children like Mercy. One million children is not just a number; behind every piece of data is the face, the story, the life of a child who has been displaced.

Despite the magnitude of the crisis, there is scope for hope. Many African communities and governments are shouldering the responsibility for refugees. The warmth of host communities – combined with the progressiveness and openness of governments in responding to the refugee crisis – is to be applauded.

Many of our colleagues on the ground continue to be inspired by the dedication to refugees in host communities. The story of a resourceful grandmother in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi – which earlier this year became the largest refugee settlement in the world – who has set up a play centre for children, with no external support, comes to mind as one illustrative example. She is unwavering and single-minded in ensuring that refugee children have an opportunity to play and learn. Such stories are numerous, and they are little triumphs in a crisis.

Beyond the communities, it is imperative to acknowledge government leadership across East Africa. Uganda, for instance, offers a notable model that includes an open-door to all refugees irrespective of their nationality; freedom of movement and refugees’ right to seek employment; while providing land to each refugee family.

Kenya too has one of the largest refugee camps in the world at Dadaab, and has been hosting refugees since the1970s. Next door, Ethiopia has very deliberate and organised government-led infrastructure for hundreds of thousands of refugees. In any circumstance this is commendable; ever more so when one considers that these are countries with their own development challenges.

With agencies such as UNHCR and WFP, UNICEF has been working around the clock in camps and settlements providing nutrition support, vaccination, safe water, sanitation and emergency education support in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Collectively we are making progress.

Despite this progress, much more needs to be done to support communities and governments whose systems are fast becoming stretched.

While it is essential for the conflict in South Sudan to end so that people can again take control of their lives, the essence of this week’s Solidarity Summit is making sure that the international community complements and supports existing national efforts for today’s refugees.

As the UN Secretary-General galvanises solidarity and commitment in Kampala, countries in the region have clear asks: For instance, the Government of Uganda and the United Nations are appealing for $8-billion in funding, for humanitarian response interventions that build resilience for refugees and for refugee-hosting populations, over the next four years.

The funds will go towards critical health services, infrastructure including water systems, agriculture, nutrition, sanitation, education, and child protection interventions.

For children, this means the opportunity to benefit from basic services and rights such as an education, early childhood programmes, healthcare, nutrition, safe water and sanitation. And it means children accessing well-funded child protection systems.

Importantly, at the moment of this Summit, there remains a need for increased collective efforts by the international community, regional entities, governments, and the private sector to respond to the unique needs of refugee children.

For while children such as Mercy are victims of events beyond their control, their heroic efforts to find safety and a fresh start should be met with compassion, goodwill and political action. Nothing less. 

Leila Pakkala is the UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern since 17 March 2014

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