What about the children?

This year, World Refugee Day focuses particularly on the right of displaced people to be safe. But what does that mean for children? Laura Buffoni, senior community-based protection officer of the UNHCR’s regional bureau for Southern Africa, sat down for an interview with Justice in Africa to share some ideas and information with readers, starting with this statistic: globally, as well as in this region, women and children make up some 80% of the displaced population.

Laura Buffoni, senior community-based protection officer of the UNHCR’s regional bureau for Southern Africa:

This is an issue I’m passionate about. In my job as community-based protection officer I advise colleagues about child protection and gender equality and gender-based violence, among other subjects.

When we consider ‘safety’, the theme of this year’s World Refugee Day, we need to translate that term and think what is means for a child.

For a child it is important to remember that safety means recreating, as quickly as possible, some normalcy.

Normalcy

What is normal for children is having their family around, so we need to prevent, as much as we can, the separation and break up of families. We need to work on re-unifying families and on recreating the normalcy of going to school, or having friends and neighbours that they can feel safe with.

We need to help make sure that children don’t feel discrimination and that they are welcomed by the community of refugees they might be living in, or, if they don’t live in a camp, then by the community of nationals where they live, especially if they are staying in urban areas.

This feeling of not being different is very important for children; this sense of normalcy and routine. We need to keep up their sense of hope that they are not missing out, and that they do have opportunities. For this reason, education and inclusion in the education system where they are hosted is most fundamental.

Attentive

Of course, when we speak to children, we need to be attentive to the high-risk situations of separation, of abuse and child labour. But the majority of children that we speak to are just normal children. And they ask you – the first thing, the most frequent question, is – ‘Can I go to school?’ Or, ‘Can I continue going to school?’

Primary education is mostly guaranteed by the host countries, but when it comes to secondary or tertiary education, that’s where we see most blockages. And the blockages don’t come only from missed opportunities; they also come from a lack of documentation, or the lack of simple legislation that would allow for their inclusion in the education system of a host country.

We cannot create parallel education systems. The humanitarian response is not designed to constantly create parallel systems, and we should not. We have a global compact that tells us it is a shared responsibility to welcome refugees. It is a shared responsibility to understand we must invest in this asset (of children). We have to invest in young people so that, as much as possible, they can have the same opportunities as nationals; the same opportunity to have a future.

Emotional safety 

For children, emotional safety is fundamental: the sense of being safe in a country that provides meaningful opportunities for them and not feeling discriminated against. The sense of safety that is provided by documentation. So that you can go to hospital it you’re unwell and be sure that you will be treated. Knowing that you can go to school and they will not send you back home. And that you can move around your neighbourhood without people accosting you on the grounds that you don’t belong there.

June 20, World Refugee Day provides us with an opportunity for reflection, it’s a day that could have meaning and provide a lot to think about.

There are several key messages I would like to reiterate.

Safe access to asylum

The main issue of course is the right to seek asylum. Unfortunately, with Covid we saw a lot of restrictions in place at the borders for obvious reasons, but we need to make sure there is always safe access to asylum.

Along with that comes something else that’s most important, namely the key tenet of protection: no pushbacks, no refoulement of people seeking asylum.

Then there’s the significant question of working on co-existence and reducing discrimination. We still see countries in the region that find it very difficult to accept some people. Everyone who needs it must have access to asylum, including minorities and people who are diverse in relation to gender identity and sexual orientation.

And then there is the fundamental message that this day sends out of humane treatment and understanding that refugees are people like all of us, that this could happen to any one of us. As far as refugees in our countries are concerned, we need to make sure there is freedom of work and of movement and that there’s safety in the communities. We also need to recognise that refugees can be assets to their host countries; that they have agency and should play an important role in their own decision making.