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Displaced children - unaccompanied and separated children

07-11-2003 Statement

"Adding coulour to peace", International Conference on Children Affected by Armed Conflict, Valencia, November 5 to 7, 2003

 Statement by Alain Aeschlimann, Head of the Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division, ICRC  


Your Majesty Queen Sofia

Your Excellency Mr Eduardo Zaplana, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs,

Your Excellency Mrs Rita Barbera, Mayor of Valencia,

Your Excellency Mr Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro, President of the Spanish Red Cross and President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I wish to congratulate and thank our friend from the Spanish Red Cross for having taken the initiative to organise an international conference on such a crucial issue as the children affected by armed conflict. It is for me a great honour to represent the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on this occasion.

As we all know, most present-day armed conflicts unfortunately are characterized by widespread contempt for basic humanitarian rules on the part of armed actors. The most vulnerable members of communities are the first to fall victims of violence, whether suffering the consequences of hostilities or because they are targeted as part of a deliberate strategy. Amongst them, children are particularly at risk.

More and more children are killed, maimed, submitted to sexual violence or imprisoned. Quite often they may also be exposed to bombing and shelling, in constant fear for their lives, or be denied food in order to put pressure on them.

All too often, children are helpless and silent witnesses of the most terrible atrocities. They often have no choice but to flee and seek refuge elsewhere. But fleeing the fighting does not necessarily mean being out of danger's reach. They may step on a mine. And in the panicked chaos of flight, children are often separated from their relatives. Cut-off from their familiar environment, children lack any certainty as to their future and that of their loved ones. They become easy prey for recruiters of all kinds or even for being treated as slaves. Forced recruitment of children is an alarming and growing trend. Weapons wielded by children pose a deadly threat not only to those children but also to those who become their targets.

Sadly, displacement might not even be a choice made as a last resort. Children, along with their families and communities or alone, are too often forcibly displaced by one party to a conflict as part of a deliberate strategy in order to empty of its population an area under the control of the opponent, or to allow large-scale military operations, or even to engage in so-called " ethnic cleansing " .

Such experiences unquestionably leave deep psychological wounds that seem incurable. Most of the time, these children's health, development and schooling are in jeopardy.

Almost all armed conflicts witness a number of children becoming separated from their families or from other adults responsible for them. These children form one of the most vulnerable groups in these situations, as they have lost the care and protection of their families. They face abuse and exploitation, and even their very survival may be threatened. They may assume adult responsibilities, such as protecting and caring for younger sisters and brothers. Most children can be reunited with parents, siblings, and members of the extended family or other adults whom they know and who are willing to provide for their care.

There is no doubt that humanitarian organizations must ensure that the most vulnerable children are protected. In this framework, I have been today invited to discuss the plight of displaced children and unaccompanied and separated children. These topics are closely interlinked as seen before as children in armed conflicts are often taken in a vicious circle of hardship. I will look at these issues from the legal aspect and with operational considerations.

As a matter of fact, as an impartial, neutral and independent organization, the ICRC, often in partnership and close cooperation with other members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, endeavours to protect and assist civilian and military victims of armed conflicts and internal violence. The ICRC aims to act for the benefit of all victims on the basis of vulnerability and needs, and therefore does not direct all efforts on children as a category. However, the ICRC positively takes into account the plight and specific needs of children in all the phases of its operations.

On the basis of its mandate enshrined in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977, the ICRC takes direct action in the field in favour of children victims of conflict, whether by visiting detained minors, monitoring and working to improve the conditions of their detention (in 2002, the ICRC visited 2,326 detained girls and boys under the age of 18 from a global total of 376,160 detainees visited worldwide; with children, the priority is put on ensuring that they are held separately from adults and to ask for their release); by restoring links between children and their families when they have been separated, including family reunifications; by running programmes related to missing or persons unaccounted for; or by providing food and non-food aid, water and habitat assistance as well as health care and health maintenance services to children, their familie s and communities.

Custodian of international humanitarian law and mandated to work for its development, the ICRC also contributes to developing the law protecting children. Apart from the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the ICRC has provided input for the drafting of other treaties such as the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and its 2000 Optional Protocol; and the 1998 Statute of the International Criminal Court that makes the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years a war crime.

Finally, the ICRC has a responsibility for spreading the knowledge of such rules - including through educational programmes specifically targeting young audiences -, for encouraging States to comply with their treaty obligations to do likewise amongst their armed forces and for supporting the promotional work of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

To be exhaustive, I have also to mention that the various components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are involved in different programmes (some run jointly) for children affected by armed conflict. The Movement adopted in 1995 a Plan of Action to help child victims of armed conflict. The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent then endorsed the Plan of Action and adopted several resolutions related to children affected by conflict. The Movement committed itself:

  • To promote the principle of non recruitment and non participation in armed conflict of persons under the age of 18 years;

  • To take concrete action to protect and assist child victims of conflict, including by setting up rehabilitation and reinsertion programmes.

It is also worth mentioning a public campaign on children in war the ICRC will be launching in partnership with UEFA and i n cooperation with the various European National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on the occasion of the forthcoming European football championship in Portugal. 

Now, let us speak about displaced children with a  focus on protection  


Generally speaking, the ordeal suffered by children displaced internally does not differ on the whole from that suffered by refugee children. However, internally displaced children do not benefit from the protection that the status of refugee grants.

The main provisions for the protection of children who are displaced within their own country in a conflict situation are to be found in International Humanitarian Law, in addition to the relevant national laws and the Convention on the Right of the Child that apply across the board of situations.

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols set out detailed measures to meet the specific needs created by armed conflicts and offer the best possible protection for all the victims of war: it protects the civilian population as a whole - without favouring one category over another - and contains many provisions protecting internally displaced persons, including, obviously, children as well. It is what we call general protection. In addition, humanitarian law pays heed to the specific needs of different categories. Indeed, children affected by armed conflict, whether they are displaced or not, enjoy what we call a special protection which is in addition to the general protection offered to the civilian population as a whole.

As it is our intention to deal here with protection for internally displaced chil dren, the supposition is that these are children who have fled within a country affected by internal conflict –which are nowadays the most frequent- and that the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law apply. Thus, the protection provided in the event of international armed conflict, a protection that is clearly much more elaborated in some 47 articles of the Geneva Conventions plus Additional Protocol I, in particular in cases of occupation and internment of children, will only be quickly mentioned.

Let us see the general  protection available to internally displaced children:

First of all these children are protected in a general way by international humanitarian law as persons not taking part in hostilities. Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions, although very short, is the cornerstone of this protection. After pointing out that persons not taking part in hostilities must be always treated humanely, it prohibits acts as: violence to life and person; the taking of hostages; outrages upon personal dignity; the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without respect for the fundamental judicial guarantees. This article also states that the wounded and sick are to be collected and cared for.

These fundamental guarantees are repeated in Additional  Protocol II , which applies in high intensity internal armed conflicts. In addition, Additional  Protocol II prohibits collective punishments, acts of terrorism and pillage). Rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault are explicitly included as examples of prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity. Persons deprived of liberty also e njoy additional guarantees.

 Additional Protocol II also holds regulations on the conduct of hostilities which stipulate that the civilian population shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations, must not be the object of attacks or be the victim of acts or threats of violence intended to spread terror.

Starvation of civilians and attack or destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations) are also expressly prohibited as methods of combat.

 Additional Protocol II also prohibits forced movement of civilians . Such displacements may be carried out only if required for the security of the civilians involved or for imperative military reasons. When such is the case, all possible measures must be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions. Although not expressly stipulated, it is understood that such movements may be only temporary.

Finally, whenever the civilian population is deprived of supplies essential for its survival (such as foodstuffs and medical supplies), relief actions " of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature and which are conducted without any adverse distinction " are to be undertaken.

With regard to the special protection afforded to children there are two specific provisions applying in situations of internal conflict. 

The basis underlying this protection is to be found in Article 4, Paragraph 3 of Additional Protocol II . The key element is that " children shall be provided with the care and aid they require " . Other rules are:

  • Family unity shall be preserved and children shall receive an education.

  • Children shall be temporarily evacuated to a safer area within the country for reasons related to the conflict.

  • Reunions of separated families have to be facilitated.

  • The death penalty shall not be pronounced on persons who were under the age of 18 years at the time of the offence.

  • The recruitment of children who have not attained the age of fifteen years is totally prohibited.

Let me make a short parenthesis on this issue of recruitment. This prohibition I just mentioned is truly absolute and covers direct or indirect participation in hostilities, i.e. by gathering information or transmitting orders. This obligation is stricter than that applicable in situations of international armed conflict that only prohibits direct participation.

Despite the efforts of a number of stakeholders to have the age below which children should not participate in hostilities raised from fifteen to eighteen years, Article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not constitute an advance, since it merely prohibits the direct participation in hostilities of children less than fifteen years of age. However, a specific reference in this Convention to the rules of international humanitarian law relevant to the protection of the child and the lex specialis character of international humanitarian law ensure that Additional Protocol II remains applicable in doubtful cases. Finally, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child raised to 18 years of age the direct participation in hostilities and the compulsory recruitment.

Interesting to mention that the special protection given to chil dren in international armed conflicts covers areas as:

  • Evacuation and establishment of special and safety zones to protect children under 15 from the effects of war;

  • Precise duties for the authorities with regard to assistance and care;

  • Identification of children, duty to proceed to or facilitate family reunifications and specific regulation with regard to the process of family reunification and with regard to unaccompanied children;

  • Education and establishment of a cultural environment;

  • Detailed regulations with regard to arrest, detention or internment.

Finally, it is worth underlining the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (based on provisions of international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law and the drafting of which the ICRC contributed to) that are not binding law but so called soft law. Apart from the principles that apply to all internally displaced persons (IDPs), the Guiding Principles also contain sections specific to children and state particularly:

  • That children are entitled to treatment that takes into account their condition and to protection and assistance in accordance with their specific needs ( Principle 4).  

  • That internally displaced children should be protected, inter alia , against forced labour ( Principle 11).  

  • That displaced children should not be recruited, nor take part in hostilities ( Principle 13) .

  • That displaced children have a right to education ( Principle 23) .

In its operations, the ICRC does its utmost to optimise conditions for children caugh t in the midst of war, and to enable them as far as possible to remain at home. In this way, the ICRC, together with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation, plays a major part in helping to prevent unnecessary or forced population displacements and to avert further deterioration and mitigate suffering when displacement took place.

At this stage, I think it is useful to mention the main ICRC activities that are of benefit to internally displaced children, as implementing examples of the rules and principles I just mentioned, being aware that much more is also done by others. In a nutshell, we are:

  • Making efforts to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of the civilian population through confidential representations and dialogue with parties to conflicts. This includes in particular prevention of displacement as in Bosnia Herzegovina and the Democratic Republic of Congo; prevention of forcible recruitment or participation in hostilities as in Sri-Lanka, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia; representations with regard to demobilisation of child soldiers and accompaniment as neutral intermediary of children just demobilised by armed groups as in Colombia; representations in relation with abuses against displaced children as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Sri Lanka or Guinea/Conakry;

  • Visiting persons deprived of freedom;

  • Restoring family links between persons separated by violence, and facilitating the reunification of families split by conflict: in 2002, over 970'000 Red Cross Messages were collected and delivered worldwide; when possible and feasible, we are also using new means of communication as the website and, before all, mobile phones, as in Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo and more recently Iraq;

  • Working on mine action. A survey revealed that 20 % of the total number of mine and unexploded ordinances victims were childre n of 18 or younger in Bosnia Herzegovina and 50% in Afghanistan. This encompasses mine awareness with priority put on children as in Bosnia or Chechnya (with posters, children magazine, puppet shows, etc.) and provision of artificial limbs as in Angola, Afghanistan or Cambodia;

  • Providing emergency medical assistance and rehabilitation (war surgery, support to medical structures, etc.): in 2002, the ICRC regularly supported 67 hospitals and other 267 other health care facilities around the world. In Afghanistan, Southern Sudan, Somalia and Angola, some 1,500 wounded children were treated in ICRC run or supported hospitals;

  • Providing health care for mother and children: in several countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Colombia, the ICRC conducts programs based on the principles of primary health care, thereby helping to maintain and restore access to health care for people who have been isolated or displaced. In 2001 in South Sudan, for example, 20,000 children under the age of five were vaccinated against measles;

  • Providing assistance to public health programmes, particularly as regards water supply and habitat: in 2002, these projects catered for the needs of 14'000'000 people worldwide;

  • Providing emergency food aid and other assistance to cover basic needs, such as hygiene and household items, seeds and tools, livestock, etc. : in 2002, direct aid was provided to 670'000 persons on a monthly basis, including 221'000 IDPs;

  • Providing rehabilitation assistance as, for example, school supplies to children displaced by internal violence in Ethiopia, or covering of school costs to children orphaned by the genocide in Rwanda or school reconstruction in cooperation with the Kenyan Red Cross and the American Red Cross in Kenya or in cooperation with the Spanish Red Cross in Kosovo;

  • Providing reintegration and socio economic support as for example done in Ethiopia in cooperation with the Ethiopian Red Cr oss to children who became street children as a consequence of the war or in Sierra Leone when supporting the Child Advocacy and rehabilitations centres run by the Sierra Leone Red Cross.

Now, let us speak about unaccompanied and separated children:  


To start with, some definitions may be useful.

A separated child is a child under the age of 18 or the legal age of majority who has been separated from both parents but may be accompanied by other relatives.

An unaccompanied child is a child under the age of 18 or the legal age of majority who has been separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult responsible for doing so by law or customs. Orphans are children of whose both parents are known to be dead.

To simplify, I shall mainly use in the following part the word'separated children'as a generic term which includes both separated children defined above and unaccompanied children.

The ICRC has been entrusted with special responsibilities in restoring family links through its mandate to run the so-called Central Tracing Agency. The Central Tracing Agency is acting through its delegates in the field and in very close cooperation with the tracing services of the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This worldwide network is unique. Restoring family links is carried out through the exchange of Red Cross Messages, tracing for missing and persons unaccounted for, preparing and organising family reunions. Collecting and centralising data are key elements in the process. To this aim, the ICRC established a major database at the beginning of the 90ies, which is regula rly upgraded.

One of our major work is to work on behalf on behalf of unaccompanied and separated children, which may also include other support than that related to restoring family links as: establishment of transit centres for separated children waiting for reunion as in Guinea/Conakry; assistance kits to children registered for reunion as in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi; assistance kits when reunion takes place as in Rwanda; assistance kits to vulnerable cases staying in quartering areas as in Angola; support to institutions caring for non accompanied children as in Rwanda, etc.). In the first three quarters of the current year alone, the ICRC followed the cases of 7'020 separated children. It registered 3'020 newly separated children and carried-out the reunification of 1'840 children with their families.

The main activities take place in Africa. Following the genocide in Rwanda, the ICRC processed in its data base the identities of 75,000 non accompanied children registered by its staff and partner organisations. From this number, some 70,700 family reunions took place, either organised by the ICRC (for about one third) or by partner organisations that also benefited from the centralised system of data.

Other major theatres of operation are: the Democratic Republic of Congo (where some 2,000 files of separated children are presently under treatment in the East with a priority given to the cases of girls; in the West, there are some 1,000 pending cases), Angola (with 1,200 separated children registered at the end of 2002) and West Africa (with 2'500 active cases and where a major challenge is related to cross border activities between Sierra Leone, Guinea/Conakry, Liberia and Ivory Coast, to the security situation within Liberia and to logistic constraints). 

For processing cases, new methods were tested and developed as the establishment of gazettes with list and/or pictures of children, posting of posters of pictures of children at strategic places, use of radios and sometimes website. It is clear that all these activities require time and long-term commitment.

Let us see the general  protection available to separated and non-accompanied children. International humanitarian law, mainly for international conflicts, provides for:

  • The unity of the family;

  • The exchange of family news;

  • The care due to vulnerable categories of persons, including children, and priorities given to them when distributing humanitarian aid;

  • The search for missing and persons unaccounted for;

  • The collection and centralisation of data related to persons protected by the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the ICRC Central Tracing Agency.

Some of the rules with regard to the special protection have already been mentioned when discussing about displaced children. They state:

  • The emphasize to put on the interest of the child;

  • Special measures for children under 15 who are orphaned or separated from their families;

  • The facilitating of reunions of separated families;

  • The conditions to respect before arranging evacuation of children to a foreign country.

The range and complexity of situations in which children become separated or unaccompanied, and the diverse needs of the children themselves, means that no single organisation can hope to solve the problem alone. Complementary skills and mandates must be brought to bear in a concerted approach to respond to this issue. As mentioned above, close inter-agency collaboration in the 1990's led to the reunion of tens of thousands of Rwandan children with their families. The crisis in the Great Lakes Region in Africa also showed that some organisations sometimes ignored the law and international standard and practices. All this led to the formation of an Inter-agency Working Group on Unaccompanied and Separated Children in 1995. It brought together key organizations with field experience of issues concerning separated and unaccompanied children as the ICRC, UNHCR, UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children/UK and World Vision International. This group developed the Inter-agency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children , for the purpose of guiding future action for national, international and non-governmental organisations. They also provide a framework for governments in their efforts to meet their obligations, and for donors in making decisions on funding. Recently endorsed, the Guiding Principles should be published by the end of this year.

It might be interesting to pay some attention to these Guiding Principles that are anchored in a protection framework keeping mainly with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols, the four Geneva Conventions and their two Additional Protocols, and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol. The principles of respect of family unity and the best interest of the child are repeatedly emphasized. The Guiding Principles 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.

Of particular relevance for the concerned children are:

  • The right to a name, legal identity and birth registration;

  • The right to physical and legal protection;

  • The right not to be se parated from their parents and the right of the families to take care of their children;

  • The right to provisions for their basic subsistence;

  • The right to care and assistance appropriate to their age and developmental needs;

  • The right to participate in decisions about their future;

  • The right to education.

The Guiding Principles insist that both families and the relevant authorities should be made aware of the ways to prevent separation , which is always feasible, even in the most acute emergencies. Also, organisations working with and for children must ensure that their actions do not inadvertently cause separation, especially when families entrust them with their children.

The case of evacuation of children without family members should be a last resort, ideally based on the informed consent of the parents and should follow strict conditions, precautions and procedures.

All children must be legally registered as soon as possible after birth, since a birth certificate, which is only available in the world for two births out of three, offers some degree of legal protection and is often needed to access a number of services and can help a lot the efforts to reunite separated children with their families.

The Guiding Principles stipulate that the unaccompanied and separated children must be assisted in reuniting as quickly as possible with their parents, or legal or customary caregivers. Identification, registration and documentation through interviews with the children and other persons who can provide information, as quickly as possible after separation, are a matter of priority. Tracing for family members must also be carried-out as soon as possible and in a proactive way before being able to go ahea d with reunification that should take place after verifying that it is in the best interest of the child. To facilitate all the process, organisations involved should share information in a coordinated way between and within countries.

When there are concerns, other actors including the authorities should be involved in order to provide the necessary support, or to find long-term solutions for children who cannot be reunited.

The Guiding Principles also tackle issues as: ways of conducting assessments, confidentiality, assistance, community-based care, placement with foster parents and the last resort use of institutions for separated children and follow-up after either family reunification or placement.

Finally, the Guiding principles deal with conditions for adoption. Emphasize is also put on the primary responsibility for coordinating programmes at central and local levels lying with governments and on the needy complementarity and cooperation   among all organizations concerned. It is also stated that specific lead roles must be established for key areas, such as child care and tracing, according to each organization's mandate, expertise and capacity to deal with the given situation.

It will be of the utmost importance that the involved organisations will work in line with the Guiding Principles and that collaboration and the exchange of information will facilitate coherent operations on the basis of the mentioned values and in the best interest of the child.

As a conclusion to my address, I can say that even if much has been done to reinforce the legal protection of the children and to work for improving their situation and welfare and if some dramatic contexts for children drastically improved, it is not enough. Globally speaking, the situation of children can be considered as worsening. The vicious spiral of violence in today's armed conflicts and large-scale violations of humanitarian law and human rights law, in which children are probably the most affected, continue. Rather than thinking on new regulations, priority has to be put on implementation and respect of existing law.

In addition, HIV/AIDS pandemic, and demographic and economic pressure on families and communities have finally diminished protection and worsened neglect and emotional suffering for children.

Governments need to develop new policies and adapt existing ones in order to meet the challenges of rapidly increasing numbers of orphans and to ensure effective protection of the rights of child.

Action to help children requires long term commitment – often for years – from the organizations involved and the international community. All should begin considering at the early stages of their involvement when and how they will end that involvement and hand over their activities to national or other entities.

Promoting knowledge of international humanitarian law and other international law instruments and standards relevant to the rights of children helps to prevent violations, should conflict break out or during conflict, and thus helps to prevent inter alia , population displacement and the separation of families. It should be further developed and systematically done.

Adequate efforts and resources have to be invested on conflict prevention. Once the conflict has broken out, peace can only prevail again when the plight of the children affected by conflict has been properly addressed and their reintegration into the society been ensured.

Thank you for your attention!

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