RPN 24 September 1997

5. The protection of unaccompanied children in large-scale refugee and repatriation emergencies: experience from Tanzania and Rwanda by Ulla Blomquist

In December 1996, when massive repatriation of the Rwandese started from Zaire, and later from Tanzania, two Rädda Barnen social workers were deployed to work for UNHCR as community services officers in Kibungu, Gisenye and Ruhengeri prefectures in Rwanda. They were responsible for assistance to the most vulnerable returnees during their journey, in transit centres and in their communes of origin (collines). An essential part of this work was the coordination (in cooperation with UNICEF), of the NGO programmes for unaccompanied children (UAC). This article aims to highlight some of the achievements, and to examine the constraints and issues of concern facing programmes in the reintegration phase following repatriation.

The Tanzanian refugee camp experience

1) Background

Both the massive influx of an estimated 1.7 million refugees into Tanzania and Zaire in 1994 and the repatriation waves back to Rwanda in November and December 1996 (totalling around 1.2 million people) were refugee movements on an unprecedented scale which imposed major challenges to the governments involved and to the international community. A rapid response was necessary without adequate pre-planning and in highly politicised environments with decimated local administrations and no infrastructure.

It is difficult to obtain figures as to how many children are experiencing the ongoing effects of this crisis but it is feared that up to as many as 10 million children in the whole Great Lakes region may be directly affected. As a result of the 1994 massacres of Tutsi and moderate Hutu, and the refugee exodus in their aftermath, it is estimated that between 95,000 and 150,000 Rwandan children have become separated from their families or orphaned. The genocide, war and life in exile have altered the demographic composition of the Rwandese, so that women now represent almost 70 per cent of the population, of which 40-50 per cent are believed to be widows. Female-headed households are carrying an overwhelming burden of socio-economic responsibility and every household is caring for an average of two orphaned children. According to a UNICEF study, nine out of ten children have experienced killings within their immediate family. Given the magnitude of the psychosocial trauma inflicted on the survivors of the genocide, very little attention has been given to the problems of psychosocial healing. In this context, however, unaccompanied children have been a focus for assistance, whereas the hardship on women and adolescents has been given less attention.

2) Assistance to unaccompanied children in refugee camps

The most urgent priority for the community services was to give protection and immediate care to the large numbers of unaccompanied children who arrived in the Ngara and Karagwe camps. UNHCR, in collaboration with the NGOs present, initiated an early registration procedure and organised mass tracing campaigns by directly involving the refugee community.

A firm policy to avoid the creation of child centres was developed and sustained from the outset. In Tanzania, the majority of separated children were arriving together with other families from their original collines, which facilitated the integration of separated children into other households. This approach was in accordance with Rwandan cultural tradition, although Rwanda also has a long history of institutional care of orphans and children from destitute families.

The early registration done at camp level was the first step in a systematic programme of identification, tracing and family reunification, which later became region-wide. This was implemented by ICRC (operating a regional database) and the community services NGOs, including SCF/UK, the Tanzanian Red Cross, Christian Outreach and Norwegian People's Aid.

As the UAC programme evolved in the camps, coordination of activities and common guidelines (based on the principle of the best interest of the child) established in close cooperation with the refugee community became key factors in its sustainability.

3) Critical issues and lessons learned in the camps:

(i) Administration. Overall coordination by one lead agency and clear division of the roles and responsibilities of all involved parties are crucial. Regular liaison in the form of agency meetings (daily in the first phase of the emergency) and cross-border coordination from the beginning are also essential. Guidelines need to be shared by all agencies, local authorities and refugee representatives, and should include a definition of UAC, clear principles and objectives and a minimum set of standards and procedures to be followed. The programme objectives should cover prevention of separation, immediate needs for survival, protection and care, tracing and family reunification, interim and transit care arrangements until tracing and reunification can be made, and long-term care if tracing and reunification are unsuccessful.

(ii) Prevention of child abandonment. Identification of children and families at risk prior to refugee movements or expected emergencies (those in child institutions, foster families, hospitals, boarding schools, children in prison, street children, child soldiers) is a priority. It is also important to raise awareness and disseminate information to parents, local leaders, authorities and institutions to discourage and prevent family separations. Family and community based support to the most vulnerable groups should be promoted.

(iii) Immediate needs of children. As far as possible, disruption of children's daily life routines should be minimised and existing support structures maintained. Adult guardians and care-givers from the area of origin of the separated children should be identified. Local NGOs and other non-refugee groups should be prevented from hosting unaccompanied children in, for example, compounds, hospitals and local institutions. Close cooperation with health clinics and feeding centres is advisable in order to monitor admittance of unaccompanied children and put referral procedures in place as soon as possible. Unaccompanied children should not be placed in a privileged position vis-à-vis other refugee children. Material assistance directly targeting these children should also be avoided. However, to prevent them becoming an additional economic burden on a household, and to lessen the risk of further abandonment, family food rations must take account of any unaccompanied children being cared for in a household.

(iv) Tracing and family reunification. This work must commence without delay. Posts or collection points where children and parents can look for each other should be established. Tracing can then progress from these points into the community. Diversified methods of tracing (mass tracing, photo tracing, community-based tracing) may be incorporated. Clear role divisions and shared areas of responsibilities for NGOs and ICRC should be identified with regard to local area tracing, regional and cross-border tracing. Refugee volunteers should be recruited to be trained on the job to work at reception points, tracing and reuniting at camp level, identifying guardian families and other related tasks. When recruiting volunteers and community workers, the potential impartiality and especially any possibility of ethnic conflicts should be considered.

(v) Interim and long-term care arrangements. Foster care should be seen as the first option; for older children, alternatives such as group living with adult supervision may more adequately meet their needs. Institutional placements should only be considered as a last option. However, a temporary transit care arrangement has to be put in place to meet the most basic needs of shelter, food and emotional support while awaiting a family placement. The duration of a child's stay should be kept to a minimum and material standards should not be developed to avoid attracting other children. It is essential to involve the refugee community leaders and a cross-section of representatives from among women's groups, religious leaders, teachers and other key groups in setting up task forces or committees to discuss community responsibility for unaccompanied children, to set the criteria for foster parents and to develop neighbourhood-based support and monitoring mechanisms for the children in foster families.

As foster-care arrangements have some protection implications, attention has to be given to special risk groups, such as children from ethnic minorities, young girls over 10 years (risk of sexual abuse), children under 5 years (risk of neglect and malnutrition), children living alone, or children in particularly vulnerable families (risk of labour exploitation, school truancy, lack of food, exposure to domestic violence). A community-based follow-up system must be developed based on the mediation, advice and support of refugee community workers rather than a monitoring system perceived as a form of control.

(vi) Psychosocial rehabilitation and education. The psychosocial needs of children should be addressed as early as possible in an emergency. This should preferably be done by starting recreational and educational activities on a non-formal temporary basis, engaging refugee teachers on a voluntary basis, and using an emergency curriculum and the mother tongue as language of instruction. The involvement of parents in the planning and implementation of the activities should be encouraged and the creation of 'experts' to deal with the psychosocial problems should be avoided. Instead, support should be given to teachers, parents and other key figures in developing culturally appropriate knowledge and teaching materials to meet the needs of all children. Access to education should be ensured for all children, with special attention given to the inclusion of unaccompanied children, girls and children with disabilities. As far as possible, education programmes, curriculum development, certificate and graduation systems should be planned and coordinated in cooperation with the authorities in the country of origin, with a view to facilitating repatriation.

(vii) The age group 15-18 years. This is a neglected group, normally excluded from UAC assistance. They too require early attention in a emergency and, given their vulnerability (caught between family disruption, unemployment and lack of access to education), they should be part of community services emergency programmes. Groups at particularly high risk include those young people living without adult support, street children, girls who have been subjected to sexual abuse, pregnancy as a result of rape, prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and boys who have been exposed to criminal behaviour and military recruitment. During the post-emergency phase in the refugee camps, a number of NGO youth projects were developed, which should be continued after repatriation. They were all based on self-help and active participation by the youth, adopted an integrated approach and included community participation, micro projects supporting particularly vulnerable groups, skills training, adult education, reproductive health, STD/AIDS prevention advice, and crisis intervention and protection to support victims of sexual violence.

The repatriation experience

1) Background

Great efforts were made by UNHCR to prepare for the voluntary repatriation of the refugees. Cross-border meetings were arranged between refugee representatives and the new municipal leaders (bourgmestres) in their collines of origin, women's groups and other key groups. Peace education was introduced in the schools on both sides of the border. However, political tensions in the region were growing and UNHCR and the whole international community were repeatedly accused of feeding in exile those responsible for the genocide. Borders were closed and refugee movements restricted. The community services programmes in Tanzania, based on refugee empowerment, were facing cuts and began to be seen as a threat by the Rwandan (and Tanzanian) governments. When mass repatriation finally came about, it was not voluntary but forced by political and military concerns.

Given the brutal nature of the Rwandan conflict, insecurity and increased tensions in Rwanda were expected to follow upon repatriation. The receiving capacity in Rwanda is very low. The destruction of the infrastructure and of the social and cultural institutions in the country has been of a devastating nature. Health, education and other social services have collapsed and most of the trained staff have been killed. In 1994, aid to Rwanda from the international community focused on survival needs and assistance to the internally displaced. Rehabilitation and development projects started as late as 1995. The general view held by the Rwandan Government is that it has been abandoned by the international community, and relations are still marked by distrust with an extensive need on the Government's part to control activities and resources at all levels.

2) Assistance to unaccompanied children during repatriation

The Rwandan Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MINITRASO) is responsible for children in difficult circumstances. UNICEF has been assigned as the lead agency to support the unaccompanied children in Rwanda and basically the mandate of UNHCR is to protect and assist returnee children during repatriation and reintegration. Save the Children (SCF,UK) is supporting the Ministry in capacity building of the social services sector and is implementing a countrywide tracing and family reunification campaign. The ICRC is responsible for registration, documentation and tracing from UAC centres, runs the UAC database and is responsible for cross-border transfers and in-country transport of all unaccompanied children. There are also a number of NGOs implementing community services programmes which focus on unaccompanied children, such as Food for the Hungry International, which has a coordinating role, and Red Barnet (Save the Children, Denmark), Concern, World Vision and International Rescue Committee. Most NGOs have experience from working with the Rwandan refugees and have upgraded their skills in tracing, family reunification and care of the children. However, overlapping mandates, centralised decision-making and lack of common understanding with the local authorities pose many problems.

Efficient coordination of assistance was achieved during cross-border movements and in transit centres during the massive repatriation waves from Zaire and Tanzania. A variety of methods were used to prevent family separations en route, assist in rapid and spontaneous reunifications and provide immediate care in temporary centres. Around 80 per cent of the identified children associated with the massive influx from Goma in November 1996 and Tanzania in December 1996 were reunited with their families by the end of January 1997. In total, from November 1996 to January 1997, 10,400 returnee children were registered as new arrivals out of which 7,800 were reunited.

The official policy of the Rwandan government regarding unaccompanied children is to support family reunification. No further child institutions should be created. In November 1995, 12,000 children were living in centres but, as a result of intensified family tracing and foster care placement, numbers went down to 7,700 in 1996. Following the massive repatriation wave, an estimated 1,500-2,000 children have been placed in transit centres awaiting family tracing.

3) Critical issues for the reintegration of returnee children:

The reintegration of the returnees has barely begun and is facing many constraints. Once returned to their home communes, continued protection and immense material support to these returnees and survivors of the genocide is needed. The most urgent issues are the recovery of occupied land and property and the need for new housing and a fair settlement policy. Many returnees without housing live in transit camps under plastic sheetings. External food assistance will be needed for many months ahead before families are settled and can support themselves with their own harvest. Moreover, the deteriorating security situation, particularly in the north west of Rwanda, means that it has become increasingly difficult to provide the communes with food, shelter and other basic survival assistance or to make community-based needs assessments and monitor the situation of children and the socio-economic conditions of vulnerable households.

Specific critical issues:

(i) Transfer of children to their home prefectures and communes, and tracing and family reunification activities in the communes, have been increasingly suspended due to the worsening security situation. As a result, children have to stay longer in child centres and transit camps, sometimes in an environment which undermines their health. Many of the children among the later groups of returnees from Zaire are malnourished and traumatised upon arrival. The local authorities are reluctant to meet the medical and psychosocial needs of children until they are sent to their home communes, where they then have no access to basic health services.

(ii) The receiving capacity for unaccompanied children and vulnerable households must be developed at commune level. Some constructive community-based projects have been initiated by NGOs, focusing on rebuilding socio-economic support structures (rural associations) involving micro-projects, agriculture, shelter and other provision for vulnerable women, foster families, youth and child-headed households but the number of beneficiaries is still very low. Basic medical services, including feeding centres, must be improved and must reach the most needy. Given the scattered living patterns in the rural areas this will require significant logistical support. All community-based assistance to children must be founded on assessments of vulnerability and include all groups living in the communes.

(iii) The registered unaccompanied children in Rwanda are largely either those who arrived with new guardian families or those who live in centres. However, there are an unknown number of children (government figures estimate between 300,000-400,000) living with foster families in the communes. These children who arrived with foster families from the camps have not been properly documented at commune level and there are reported problems especially among those living with families to whom they are not related. No follow-up mechanism currently exists to monitor children in these families. Another risk group are child-headed households who might not be able to recover their family property or provide for their basic survival needs. There is an urgent need to organise and train community-based teams of local social workers who can follow up and support vulnerable children and families in their communes. Children in prison, street children, children in centres and child soldiers all require special attention and monitoring.

(iv) The large majority of women are single and supporting many children. Poverty alleviation and promotion of basic legal, social and economic rights for this group are critical in order to improve the protection and psychosocial wellbeing of children. Support to, and empowerment of, women's own networks, and literacy and training in income-generating skills, are essential to reduce their vulnerability. In the prevailing conditions of insecurity and distrust within the communes, protection systems need to be family and household based.

(v) There is an urgent need to support rehabilitation and improve the capacity of schools in Rwanda. The rapid integration into schools of newly-returned children must be seen as a priority and will require substantial external support. Schools are currently overcrowded and lack trained teachers and teaching materials. The subsidising of school fees, uniforms, books and school meals is necessary in order to promote school attendance. Teacher training and curriculum development are other important issues, and peace education and the active participation of parents in school activities should be promoted.

(vi) The needs of adolescents must be adequately addressed by rehabilitating secondary schools, provision of skills training and income-generating opportunities to combat unemployment, poverty and growing social tensions.

Ulla Blomquist is a social worker and a member of the Rädda Barnen Emergency Standby Team. She was seconded to UNHCR as a Community Services Officer in Tanzania from May to August 1994 and in Rwanda from December 1996 to June 1997.

Return to Top of Page

October 1997