Two Syrian boys sit on a box of aid distributed by the ICRC to the most vulnerable refugee families. Zerinok SULEYMANIEH

Addressing challenges of children without parental care in conflict settings

UNSC Arria-formula meeting: Addressing challenges of children without parental care in conflict settings.
Article 07 December 2021

3 December 2021

Briefing by ICRC Chief Protection Officer, Christian Cardon

Excellencies, Colleagues,

Mr. Chair, thank you for bringing attention to this issue and for inviting the ICRC to brief today. I will first highlight some of the core challenges that we see, with a focus on specific situations of the most vulnerable children. Then, I will provide recommendations that can help hopefully mitigate some of the challenges, and potentially stem some harm to these children.

Allow me to start with a brief word on the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC. For nearly 160 years, the ICRC has worked to reunite families and prevent separation in the first place.

Today, across the world, we facilitate tens of thousands of phone calls among family members separated by war, armed violence or by migration. We work with thousands of children, many of whom are stranded in warzones or have lost contact with their families or caregivers.

In such cases, the ICRC works with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and many other partners to try and establish the missing person's fate or whereabouts, including for missing children or their missing relatives. We do work to restore family contacts and to respond to the children's needs and those of their families. For example, we go to the last known location of the missing person, work with community leaders, or use means such as posters, online tracing or radio messages.

Of course, you will understand that from this work, we know the scale of the problem is great and that obviously the challenges are very complex.

Children separated from their parents or other family members are more likely to be at risk of abuse, exploitation, violence and, in some cases, recruitment by armed forces or armed groups. They face challenges in accessing essential, life-saving services such as health care and education.

Children often end up in detention, for instance, because of their actual or perceived association with an armed group, or because they were unable to access appropriate forms of child justice, such as alternatives to prosecution and detention. These children may additionally face discrimination, ostracization, and also stigmatization.

Migrant children (which include refugees) are also, obviously a group of concern, especially when they are separated from their families. Some may be separated during their journey, or upon arrival, some still are sent unaccompanied by their parents, for instance, to escape recruitment into armed groups.

At times, children are held in immigration detention, or are at risk of being returned to dangerous conditions where they will have an increased likelihood of being exposed to violence, including sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse, without necessarily having access to any protection mechanisms.

Thousands of children, too, are stranded in situations of prolonged displacement, where left unaccompanied they may be lost and left without access to an education, nutrition, and health care.

This is only a brief, but sobering highlight of the main challenges children may face. And yes, there are rules that could help prevent the protection issues we are addressing today regarding unaccompanied or separated children.

International humanitarian law, as we know, contains a number of obligations that seek to ensure that, when a child is actually separated from their family in armed conflict, the child's needs are met. These obligations also seek to restore contact and ultimately achieve the reunification of family members whenever possible. Better respect for these rules could help stem harm to the children.

The ICRC therefore recommends the following to States. There are four recommendations:

First, respect the family as much as possible – and try to prevent separation in the first place, as my colleague from UNICEF just stated. This requires, to the degree possible, the maintenance of family unity, contact between family members, and the provision of information on the whereabouts of family members. All feasible measures should be taken to prevent family separation, including for immigration-related reasons.

In short, families should be able to stay together.

Second recommendation, make every effort to quickly identify unaccompanied children in situations of armed conflict, internal displacement or migration. Identification helps to ensure that their cases are followed up and that their needs are met in a timely manner. Knowledge of their whereabouts and a response for each child prevents recruitment, avoids children resorting to harmful coping strategies to meet their essential needs, or exposure to exploitation and abuse.

In the specific case of missing migrants, including unaccompanied children, the ICRC calls on authorities to put in place local, national and transnational mechanisms to cooperate and exchange information in the search for these children.

Third recommendation, if children are separated from their families, prioritize and address their specific needs, and ensure family reunifications without delays, when possible and in the best interest of the child.

Whenever families are separated, the ICRC respectfully asks authorities to ensure that family contacts are restored and maintained by whichever means possible – via visits, via video calls, phone calls, etc. – and in respect of COVID-19 protective ongoing measures.

The term "family" now, should be interpreted in a broad sense to include biological, adoptive or foster relatives, or, where applicable, members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom.

Fourth, and finally, detention must be a last resort for children. In the event a child is detained, States must systematically ensure that parents or another family member is provided with information concerning their whereabouts and should make every effort to restore family links.

All children are entitled to their rights and protections as children, without distinction based on their age, gender, religion, or perceived association with an armed group.

In this area, the ICRC aims to ensure that the conditions in which children are detained, and the treatment they receive in detention, respects their specific needs and meets internationally recognized juvenile justice standards. When needed, the ICRC will offer to re-establish contact between a detained child and his or her family, which can provide, as you know, a vital lifeline and offer greater protection to the child. With the child's whereabouts known, the family can bring critical items, such as food, medication or clothing, or begin to work toward their release. Family contact also provides vital emotional, psychological, and at times, economic support to the children.

On this point I will close with this emphasis: Families are an invaluable lifeline in situations of conflict. For children, the support of family is critical to ensuring access to food, healthcare, education and ensure their mental wellbeing. The family can be the best protection from the vulnerabilities of a life affected by conflict.

We must do all that we can to identify unaccompanied or separated children and reunite them with their loved ones so they can have this support and protection. In absence of the family, we must ensure that the child receives the support they need.

Each child, no matter their situation – whether born into conflict, sent alone to find safety or better opportunities, left behind after losing loved ones – each child deserves a chance. It is up to us to help them have that chance.