Monday, October 19, 2015

Introduction: Refugee Children

Images of drowned Syrian child, Aylan, brought unusually closer home to many of us, the vast magnitude of displaced people and the completely contingent manner in which they try to make new lives, seek shelter and care for family. And of course, the fact that governments were keen to keep displaced people out. Aylan, 3 years old, was trying to reach the Greek island of Koch, having already been displaced from three different places- when the 15 foot long, ramshackle boat he was travelling in, capsized. Alongside Aylan, his 5 year old brother and mother were also killed, leaving the father as the sole surviving member of the family. Media interest in the image and he family revealed all too familiar stories of a people, torn by strife trying to eke out peaceful living without any assistance whatsoever from governments or states.

Interesting was the response of The Times of India, which desisted from pusblishing Aylan’s photo on its front page for the first couple of days, and did so only after the image was circulated innumerable times on social media. The image on the front page carried with it the rejoinder that the TOI had been reluctant to publish the image, apprehensive of the shock and discomfort it must cause its readers. Of course, the complete arbitrariness of the displacement of the group of people left at lurch by Syria and European nations alike, represented by this drowned child, barely found mention. But TOI’s publication of the image pointed to the potential of the image to mobilise public sentiment across the globe and perhaps to also prompt state action.

The question then is, what was it about this image? Is a child’s death necessary to bring attention to wide spread humanitarian crisis? If yes, then yet another image of a child, this time shared only on social media, would beg to differ. In an article titled “This Indian child deserves your attention as much as the Syrian boy” (available here), columnist Supriya Sharma argues that we pick and choose humanitarian causes that do not ask uncomfortable questions. For example, the image of a malnourished Indian child, like the one accompanying this editorial (borrowed from Sharma’s article), displaced by a coal mine, does not manage to evoke the same sort of response, either in social media or among governments.

Both these instances bring to the fore an implicit understanding that children are specially vulnerable and images of displaced children serve to highlight the extent to which human lives are at the mercy of political and economic interests.

UNHCR data reveals that more than 43 million people worldwide are now forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution, the highest number since the mid-1990s. Several million people remain displaced because of natural disasters. More than 15 million of the uprooted are refugees who fled their home countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict within their own homelands -- so-called ‘internally displaced people.’

Almost half of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children and many spend their entire childhood far from home. Whether they are refugees, internally displaced, asylum-seekers or stateless, children are at a greater risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or forced military recruitment. They may also have witnessed or experienced violent acts and/or been separated from their families.

International law has long made a distinction between refugees, who have crossed a state border and are protected by the 1951 Convention, and the internally displaced, who are not. But research reveals that in terms of their needs and vulnerabilities, however, the effects of their forced displacement is similar: they face loss of their home, their livelihood, their community. Regardless of whether they have crossed a border or not, they deserve help. Children living without parents are especially vulnerable due to lack of adult protection and scarce economic resources.

In this issue RWOnline has tried to capture violence and discrimination experienced by children within and outside refugee camps, including gender-based violence directed at girls. Incidentally all three of the articles below chronicle lives of refugee children within special spaces, that raise questions about the spaces themselves as well as the status of the children within them.

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