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Refugee children

24-05-2002 Statement

ICRC statement to the UNHCR Global Consultations on International Protection, fourth meeting, Geneva, 22-24 May 2002

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) welcomes this opportunity to discuss the particular needs and vulnerabilities of refugee children.  As was the case with the discussion on refugee women this morning, the ICRC believes that particular attention should be paid to children in all activities and programmes for refugees.

As a general point, the ICRC believes that care should be taken not to treat all persons under the age of 18 as a homogeneous group.  While all deserve special attention, they may not have the same needs or vulnerabilities.  Distinctions may need to be drawn in order to prioritise action, as for example between unaccompanied and separated children.  Similarly, different ages bring with them different threats.  While younger children may be more susceptible to diseases, older children are preferred targets for military recruitment and sexual abuse.

With regard to the legal framework, there is a substantial body of law which protects refugee children.  The background note did not mention the important protection afforded to children by international humanitarian law.  In situations of armed conflict children are entitled to general protection, either as civilians, or, if they are taking a direct part in hostilities, as combatants.  In addition to this general protection, they benefit from a number of specific provisions which expressly address their particular vulnerabilities.  For example, humanitarian law contains provisions to prevent separation, to provide protection should separation occur, to protect children from abuse and, of course, to prevent their participation in hostilities.

International humanitarian law applies in times of armed conflict.  If the state of asylum is in conflict its rules for the protection of children are of immediate relevance.  If the state of asylum is at peace refugee children may have fled from a state in conflict.  Respect for international humanitarian law could have avoided some of the problems the children are facing – such as separation.

Having drawn attention to yet another body of law which protects refugee children, the ICRC agrees that often these rights and protections are not a reality.  As in the case of refugee women, the challenge before us is to achieve their realisation in practice.

The ICRC would like to provide some points of information on the subject of separation – a situation which exacerbates the vulnerability of children.

The ICRC does not share the view expressed in the background note that the use of the concept of “unaccompanied child” has declined.  It continues to be applied alongside the notion of “separated child”.

An unaccompanied child is a child under 18 years of age or the legal age of majority who is separated from both parents and is not being cared for by a guardian or another adult who by law or custom is required to do so.

A separated child on the other hand is a child under 18 years of age or the legal age of majority who is separated from both parents but not necessarily from other relatives.  A separated child can be accompanied by other family members.

The notion of unaccompanied child remains applicable and is very pertinent in operational terms as it identifies children who are particularly at risk.  In its reunification operations the ICRC is giving priority to the unaccompanied children.

The ICRC has a specific mandate based on the Geneva Conventions to deal with family reunification in situations of armed conflict.  It carries out these activities in cl ose co-operation with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and other organisations.  Children are prime beneficiaries of these activities.

The ICRC and a number of other organisations with field experience of issues concerning separated children, including UNHCR, are finalising the Inter-Agency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children.  Based on international humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights, these Guiding Principles aim to ensure that all actions and decisions taken concerning separated children are anchored in a protection framework and respect the principles of family unity and the best interests of the child.  They address all stages of an emergency and its possible impact on children: from preventing separations to family tracing and reunification through interim care and long-term solutions.

Finally, with regard to the issue of military recruitment, the ICRC wishes to draw attention to the fact that international humanitarian law prohibits the recruitment or participation in hostilities of children under the age of 15.  Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 or using them to participate actively in hostilities constitutes a war crime in both international and non-international armed conflicts under the Statute of the International Criminal Court.  As stated in the background document, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child increases the minimum age for compulsory recruitment to 18.

As was the case for separation, a holistic response is necessary to the problem: efforts must be made to prevent the recruitment – which is not inevitably forced – and participation of children in armed conflict, to ensure them the special protection to which they are entitled during their participation in hostilities and to facilitate demobilisation and reintegration of child soldiers.

Thank you Mr Chairman,