World Refugee Day: Caring for unaccompanied children in emergencies

Majak* with his children and grandchildren near their tukul (mud house) in Awerial, South Sudan.
Majak* with the children and grandchildren Save the Children helped him find, South Sudan.

Imagine waking in the middle of the night and being told you have just minutes to leave your home and everything you have ever known.

You’re told you must run, perhaps even scramble onto a small boat to make a dangerous journey across the river.

Imagine that somewhere in the panic – amid the crowds of people all making the same journey – you lose sight of your family.

Now imagine you’re just a child.

Grim reality for children in conflict

All too often, this is the reality for children caught up in conflict or natural disaster. Vulnerable and alone, they are completely reliant on the state and any aid organisations working in the area.

This would be frightening – and dangerous – enough. But unfortunately, these children are often mistakenly labelled as orphans.

They are removed from their communities, taken to institutions and often lose any chance of ever returning home.

Helping children to find their way home

Today is World Refugee Day.

We are taking this opportunity to call on all governments to agree laws that will ensure that children in emergencies are not unnecessarily placed in out-of-home care; instead, they must be reunited with surviving family and the support networks of their community.

This should be a priority in the first days of any emergency and we believe that donors, governments and organisations should all increase their funding to enable it to happen.

Where it is not possible for children to be reunited with their parents, we want governments and organisations to work with communities to find ways for extended family or appropriate community members to support them, while monitoring to ensure that any action taken is in the child’s best interests.

Prevention is better than cure

Save the Children is continually working to improve the level of care and support we provide to unaccompanied children in emergencies but we are also looking at ways to stop children from becoming separated in the first place.

In Central African Republic, where conflict has left over 2,700 children unaccompanied, we recently launched a radio campaign to inform people of ways to reduce family separation while on the move. We also gave out bracelets to children under five so that they could be more easily traced.

Planning before an emergency, prioritisation afterwards

We know that the faster we begin trying to trace a child’s family and reunite them, the more successful we are likely to be.

If systems were put in place before a crisis hit  and a commitment was made to prioritise family and community-based care following an emergency, children would be far better protected.

I can’t imagine the pain of a parent whose child has gone missing. I know I would want governments, organisations and donors to do everything in their power to help reunite us. Finding my child would be my number one priority; we believe it should also be theirs.

See our Child Protection Pinterest board on the need for alternative care in emergencies

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