Statement to the Annual Members Meeting of the International Save the Children Alliance

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

May 3, 2001

First, I would like to extend greetings to you from the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Dr. Francis M. Deng, and also thank the International Save the Children Alliance for giving our office the opportunity to address its annual members meeting. Both Dr. Deng and I have great admiration for the work this organization is doing in all parts of the world to benefit children who are uprooted and separated from their families and communities. In the Sudan, Save the Children, together with UNICEF, has succeeded in tracing hundreds of abducted children from the south and restoring them to their families. In Mozambique, Save the Children has helped give a future to displaced children and former child soldiers through the establishment of schools, vocational centers, and the provision of health care, psychosocial support and other important services. Indeed, Save the Children has recognized that children who are uprooted by war and ethnic strife in their own countries have special needs and also require special attention.

In my remarks today, I will begin by giving a brief overview of the global crisis of internal displacement, then focus on the special plight of internally displaced children, and finally draw your attention to areas where more work is needed on behalf of uprooted children.

There are in today’s world as many as 20 to 25 million people who are forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries by civil wars, ethnic strife, and generalized violence. They are called internally displaced persons or IDPs, or sometimes, internal refugees. An estimated 10 million can be found in Africa, 5 million in Asia, 5 million in Europe and 2 million in the Americas. Half of all internally displaced persons are children, and most are in desperate straits—without adequate food, medicine, shelter, education or a shred of protection against violence and human rights abuse.

Because the internally displaced are uprooted from their homes and separated from their communities and livelihoods, they are especially vulnerable. Internally displaced children are more often deprived of basic life giving support than other members of the population and are especially easy targets for physical assault and abuse. Surveys in the 1996 Graca Machel study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children indicate that mortality rates among internally displaced children can be as much as 60 percent higher than rates for conflict affected, non-displaced children in the same country. In fact, the highest mortality rates ever recorded during humanitarian emergencies have involved IDPs.

This year in Herat, Afghanistan, 220 internally displaced children froze to death between January 29-31. I doubt you would hear that about refugee children. Why? Because refugee children have an international organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to protect and assist them. But when children are trapped within their own countries, and their own governments are unwilling or unable to help them, there is no international organization that is automatically responsible.

The international system set up after the second world war focused exclusively on persons who fled across borders—that is, refugees. At the time, that was a great step forward because prior to 1951, persons who fled across borders from persecution were turned back. But in keeping with traditional notions of state sovereignty, those displaced and at risk within their own countries were not included in any organized system of international protection. It was assumed that their governments would provide for their well being and security. When their governments failed to do so or deliberately subjected their populations to forced displacement, starvation, mass killings and other serious abuses, the international community basically stood by. Even as late as 1988, international organizations and NGOs watched while a quarter of a million people died in the Sudan—many of them children—for lack of food and emergency supplies.

This attitude began to change in the 1990s, the very last ten years of the 20th century, when some sense of international responsibility began to emerge toward people at risk in their own countries. A major reason for the change was the growing number of IDPs. When first counted in 1982, there were only 1.2 million in 11 countries. By 1997, 20 to 25 million were to be found in more than 40 countries, mainly because of the explosion of civil wars emanating from or following the cold war. In fact internally displaced persons began to outnumber refugees two to one in many humanitarian emergencies.

The issue of internal displacement also came to the fore because the Cold War came to an end. The humanitarian dimension of situations came into sharper focus, and access became easier. Without fears of superpower retaliation, possibilities opened up for crossing borders and reaching the internally displaced. This was reinforced by greater acceptance of the idea that events taking place within a country are not just the business of the government concerned but also the legitimate concern of the international community. Technological advances—the CNN factor—also helped. Watching starving Sudanese or beleaguered Kurds on TV screens generated public demands for international action and outpourings of aid to persons displaced within their own countries.

To be sure, some of the interest in protecting people in their own countries arose out of a desire to curb refugee flows. The political advantage that had motivated many nations to accept refugees during the Cold War gave way—in the early 1990s—to a desire to limit their entry. Both Western governments and governments in other parts of the world began to demonstrate less willingness to accept large numbers of refugees, and instead, focused their energies on the need to promote protection and assistance for those displaced within their own countries.

But whatever the reasons, a sense of international responsibility began to emerge toward people at risk in their own countries when their own governments failed to meet their survival needs or when there was no government at all. Thus in the Sudan in 1990, the UN used hard diplomatic bargaining to persuade the Sudanese government and the rebel forces to accept Operation Lifeline Sudan, an international effort to bring food and supplies to internally displaced and other affected populations inside the country. And in the case of Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda, the Security Council authorized the use of force to bring relief to internally displaced persons. In addition, an array of international humanitarian, human rights and development organizations came forward, like UNHCR, the World Food Programme and UNICEF, and a myriad of NGOs, to offer increased protection, assistance and reintegration and development support to persons uprooted in their own countries. In 1992, the United Nations Secretary-General appointed a special Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis M. Deng, to study the worldwide crisis of internal displacement, dialogue with governments, international organizations and NGOs, and make recommendations to the international community for improving protection and assistance to these populations.

One of the points Dr. Deng has repeatedly made in his reports to the UN is that at least half of the internally displaced populations are children and that they are uprooted during a particularly crucial and vulnerable period of their lives. In his missions to at least 20 countries, he has regularly found that considerable numbers of these children are separated from their families or are orphans.

The trauma for displaced children begins when their families flee or are forcibly uprooted from their homes. The disruption, the insecurity, the experience of seeing their parents rendered powerless deeply affect the emotional and physical well being of children. Sometimes the children witness atrocities against their family members and neighbors during this period. Then in flight, substantial numbers of children become separated from their families and communities. In 1995 in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire, it was estimated that 200,000 children were unaccompanied. Cut off from the protection and care of familiar social structures, they become especially vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse, forced recruitment into armies and guerrilla forces, and even slavery.

The case of the Lost Boys of the Sudan is particularly poignant. Beginning in 1987, some 17,000 boys from southern Sudan, between the ages of 8 and 18, became separated from their families because of the war and trekked 1,000 miles, first to Ethiopia and then back to the Sudan and then to northwest Kenya, where about half reached the Kakuma refugee camp in 1992. During their displacement in the Sudan, they endured attacks from the Sudanese army, rebel recruitment squads, marauding bands, slave traders and wild animals; many died from starvation or thirst; others staved off dehydration by drinking their own urine. Of the survivors, as many as 74 percent experienced shelling or air bombardment, 85 percent saw someone die from starvation, 92 percent said they were shot at, and 97 percent witnessed a killing. One journalist described them as among the most badly war traumatized children ever examined.

For many displaced children, becoming child soldiers may be their only means of survival. There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world today, who grow up knowing nothing but violence. In Sierra Leone, approximately 10,000 children were recruited as soldiers by rebel and government armies and forced to kill, maim, rape and loot. In Northern Uganda, more than 12,000 children have been brutally abducted from their homes over the last 14 years to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves in the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militia force. Some are forced to take drugs, which help them commit atrocities against civilians, including their own neighbors, and sometimes even their own families. Rehabilitating these children has become one of the more difficult tasks facing the international community.

Landmines also pose a special risk to children because some of the mines and unexploded bombs often look like toys and children pick them up to play with, with catastrophic results. It should be emphasized that children and adults who are internally displaced are less likely to know where mines have been planted than populations living in the areas. They are often, as a result, more at risk. Whether in Angola, Mozambique, Sri Lanka or Bosnia, land mines pose an enormous protection problem for children.

Internally displaced children are also at great risk of malnutrition and disease. In Sierra Leone, rates of acute malnutrition among displaced children have been as high as seventy percent. The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children found, after a visit to Sierra Leone in 1997, that children comprise at least 700,000 of the country’s 1.8 million displaced. Moreover, the war disabled large numbers of them. And it is guessed that growing numbers of internally displaced children are HIV positive in a number of countries. Against this general background of deprivation, disease and trauma, the children who survive almost inevitably suffer deep psychological wounds not to speak of stunted physical growth.

Internally displaced children also grow up largely uneducated. In camps or settlements where displaced children may congregate, educational facilities often do not exist. Where they do exist, they are generally makeshift, under-resourced and limited to primary education. Teachers are also scarce because they too have been forcibly uprooted. In many rural areas, schools are the targets of fighting because the school may be the only substantial permanent structure in the area, making it highly susceptible to shelling or looting. In Mozambique, during the conflict, an estimated 45 percent of primary schools were destroyed.

When internally displaced children flee to urban areas, they may be prevented from attending school by fees or material requirements that their families cannot afford. Or they may suffer discrimination because of their ethnic or indigenous background or because they are poor and may not speak the national language. Or they may have to work to ensure their families’ survival. Thus, around Khartoum, in the Sudan, where at least 1.8 million displaced persons can be found, only one-third of displaced children attend school. And in northern Uganda, children from IDP camps don’t go to primary or secondary schools because of the cost. In Colombia, only 15 percent of internally displaced children receive some form of education. Indeed, displaced children in Colombia are turned away from schools because of their indigenous or racial background.

Although the magnitude of the problem affecting internally displaced children is clearly enormous, there nevertheless are definite steps that can be taken to make a difference in the lives and future of these children. Let us look at five areas where greater attention could yield results.

First, more systematic monitoring and reporting are needed about the problems facing internally displaced children. To be sure, over the past 5 to 10 years, UN agencies like UNICEF and non-governmental groups like Save the Children have begun to raise visibility to the plight of children displaced by civil wars. In 2000, for example, Save the Children UK produced what I believe is the first major study about internally displaced children entitled “War brought us here.” Both the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict have endorsed this report and have introductory statements in it. I strongly recommend this groundbreaking document to all Save the Children chapters and members worldwide.

Nonetheless, when we go country by country, information about displaced children remains spotty and sometimes isn’t collected at all. When there is information about internally displaced persons, it is not usually disaggregated or made specific to children. For this reason, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children has called for a needs assessment of the more than 50,000 child-headed households in IDP camps in northern Uganda in order that their serious protection and assistance concerns can be addressed. And in Sri Lanka, Save the Children and Oxfam in the late 1990s found it necessary to undertake three annual, in-depth surveys of displaced persons’ perspectives, including the perspectives of internally displaced children.

Needs assessments and information collection would prove especially valuable in areas controlled by insurgent groups. In fact, internally displaced children and IDPs who live in areas controlled by insurgent forces are largely invisible to the international community. Notwithstanding that the reports and rumors about their treatment are usually quite horrendous. In Angola, for example, the Representative of the Secretary-General heard reports about children being abducted and traded by UNITA forces for use as forced labor. But the UN has no access to or information about these areas. The Representative as a result called upon local NGOs and church groups who did have some access, to try to collect information about these children and bring it to the attention of the national authorities and the international community. In Colombia, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, Uganda and elsewhere, millions of displaced children can be found in areas run by insurgent forces and many are being mistreated. Yet there is little solid information about most of these situations.

In still other countries, the United Nations for a variety of political reasons does not become involved with internally displaced persons, for example in Turkey, Algeria, Burma and India. This means that NGOs must be in the forefront of reporting on conditions of IDP children in these countries.

Second, greater attention needs to be paid to developing strategies for the protection of the physical safety and human rights of displaced children.

Humanitarian action that provides only food, medicine and shelter does only half the job. Those receiving assistance must also be protected against assault, human rights abuse and ongoing warfare. Indeed, internally displaced persons have often made known that they would prefer to go hungry for a week than to be beaten, raped or killed. But for most humanitarian and development agencies, protection and human rights have not been a central concern or function. Some fear it could jeopardize their access and ability to provide relief, and even lead to expulsion. Others have little experience or training in such issues.

Increasingly, however, awareness has been growing that inattention to protection can undermine relief operations and that assistance must be more fully integrated with protection. For example, UN agencies and NGO umbrella groups in the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee have developed a policy paper calling upon all humanitarian and development agencies, not just those with protection mandates, to play a greater role in protection.

What is meant by protection? It could mean representations or vigorous advocacy on behalf of the victims, increased presence when people are in danger, accompanying IDPs, creating safe zones such as zones of peace or corridors of tranquility, monitoring and reporting on protection problems. With regard to children, it could mean advocating for their right to education, interceding with authorities to stop their recruitment into armed forces, helping them acquire registration documents for school enrollment, tracing and finding their families, identifying ways to protect girls from sexual abuse. It could mean setting up child-watch networks that identify and try to remedy problems. It could mean including child rights monitoring units in peacekeeping arrangements.

To be sure, UN agencies and NGOs have been taking increasing steps to protect internally displaced persons. But UN agencies still have reached no agreement about which ones should engage in protection activities and under what circumstances. Similarly, human rights and humanitarian NGOs, engaged in ongoing consultations, have yet to produce a division of labor to promote basic human rights and safety during emergencies. Needs assessments continue to include experts in food, medicine and shelter but rarely in protection and human rights. In very few locations where internally displaced populations can be found are there strategies worked out by the actors on the ground to promote protection. Nor is there a corps of protection specialists to deploy in emergency situations

In an effort to enhance protection for internally displaced persons, the Representative of the Secretary-General developed a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and presented them to the UN in 1998. Since that time, the Principles have become an important advocacy tool for international organizations and NGOs in dealing with situations of displacement. Basically they specify what protection should mean for the internally displaced, and a number of their provisions relate specifically to children. For example, the Principles prohibit the forced recruitment of children, forced labor, forbid the sale of children into slavery, stress the importance of family reunification and emphasize the right of children to receive an education. They also underscore the special needs of unaccompanied children. The provisions are based on international human rights and humanitarian law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What the Principles do is to tailor existing law to the specific needs of internally displaced children and all other IDPs.

A Handbook for Applying the Principles, also published by the UN, specifies in non-technical language the steps that NGOs and others can take to protect IDPs. It is our hope that Save the Children field staff and members will familiarize themselves with the 30 Principles and the Handbook, disseminate these documents, and advocate for the rights of displaced children on the basis of the Principles, which reinforce the provisions in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In my opinion, protection is the most challenging and neglected feature of dealing with internally displaced populations. Far more training is needed for field staff in advocacy and in protecting physical safety and human rights, in mobilizing communities for self-protection and in developing protection strategies in the field.

Nor, it should be emphasized, does protection end when the conflict is over. International organizations and NGOs have an important role to play in increasing security in areas of return. Indeed, societal tensions may actually increase in the post-conflict phase, especially where there is no functioning police or judicial system, where ethnic animosities and unsettled scores may persist, where the displaced find their homes, land and personal property taken by others, where women without husbands or brothers find themselves unprotected, where there are no schools, where women and girls have no property rights and orphans no legal standing. Stationing international field staff in areas of return and reintegration, as was the case in Rwanda and Tajikistan, is one way to increase security in such areas until such time as local authorities can assume this responsibility effectively. Land mine awareness campaigns are also critical in areas of return. In Bosnia and Serbia last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross extended its mine awareness program to children. It organized a competition for 46,000 primary school children that included games, drawings, and a quiz about the safety measures to adopt when finding unexploded mines or bombs. The result has been a reduction in mine accidents in Bosnia.

Far greater attention is needed worldwide to addressing protection problems during emergencies and in the post-conflict phase.

Third, schooling for internally displaced children should be made a priority in emergencies. Education must stop being treated as a secondary need to be addressed once conflicts are over but as a vital concern, including during armed conflicts. Education is one of the most important kinds of protection for children. It gives shape and structure to children’s lives and can be a haven of security when everything around is in chaos. And for children who have lost limbs or who have been the victims of violence, integration into schools may be their first step toward recovery. Moreover, displacement and war are not always temporary. Civil conflicts can go on for decades – just look at the Sudan, or at the frozen conflicts in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Education should not have to wait for peace agreements.

The Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons has repeatedly stressed the importance of both primary and secondary school education for internally displaced children. He has found that primary education is sorely neglected and secondary education not even attempted in situations of internal displacement. In Angola, the Representative found that adolescent boys in IDP camps, who were provided no secondary education or training, left the camps for the cities where large numbers could be seen eking out a precarious existence by selling goods in the streets or by begging. Adolescent girls who left the camps resorted to prostitution, putting themselves at grave risk of abuse and disease. As a result, the Representative strongly urged the Angolan government, which has considerable resources from oil, to increase the amount of funds it spends on education. And he called upon the international community to contribute more as well. Failure to invest sufficiently in education, he pointed out, could have serious consequences for the future development of the country.

Efforts to break down the barriers to education for displaced children are also vitally needed. Partly as a result of an advocacy campaign by UNICEF and local partners, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education is reported to have issued a national circular directing local schools to facilitate the enrollment of displaced and returnee children. And in northern Uganda, UNICEF created learning centers for displaced and other children who can’t afford school. In Mozambique, Save the Children mobilized community volunteers to help returning children acquire the documents they needed for school enrollment. All these initiatives are admirable, but many more are needed to reach the large numbers of displaced children without schooling.

Fourth, greater attention must be paid to the psychological needs of displaced children. Millions have experienced trauma and need some form of psychological help. In Sierra Leone, approximately 50,000 children were left orphaned, unaccompanied or in displaced persons camps, and tens of thousands of children were abducted as laborers or sex slaves by the rebel forces. Psychological counseling and rehabilitation facilities are needed and the capacity to train local professionals. Fortunately, there are growing numbers of programs for boys who became child soldiers. But programs are also needed for girls who were forced to be sexual slaves, who became pregnant because of rape, and who are not accepted back into their communities. Many other displaced children as well suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Surely, the time has come to systematically integrate mental health services into the humanitarian assistance programs provided in post-conflict situations. They will not only help the children cope and face a better future but will contribute to the overall success of return and reintegration. Recently, the World Health Organization has stepped into this arena but NGO programs supportive of local community services are vitally needed. One notable example is in Sri Lanka, where local NGOs created “drop in” centers for displaced and returnee children to help in particular with the readjustment of those with special problems.

Fifth, far more resources are needed for internally displaced populations, half of whom are children.

Although today’s conflicts produce displacement on both sides of the border, internally displaced persons continue to receive second-class treatment in most emergencies. In Rwanda, for example, after the 1994 genocide, most aid went to those who fled to Zaire, with those uprooted inside Rwanda largely left to fend for themselves. And in Kosovo, the lion’s share of international aid went to the 900,000 ethnic Albanians forced out of the province, whereas the hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced inside remained basically unaided and unprotected until the war was over. International policies and structures that continue to focus primarily on only one side of the border will assure that large numbers of IDPs and their children receive little or no help.

Although international involvement within countries has become a defining feature of the post cold war era, the resources made available do not yet match that reality. More funding is needed during the emergency phase, especially in Africa which houses at least half the internally displaced populations in the world but where fundraising goals usually fall far short of their targets.

Greater funding is also needed once the emergency phase is over. Internally displaced populations may go on for years without the basic necessities of life even though there no longer is open war or an emergency. In the frozen conflicts of Georgia and Azerbaijan, for example, internally displaced children have been found living in the empty rooms of hospitals or in railway cars for more than five years. To be sure, their own governments have prime responsibility for their welfare but donors too are far more ready to provide emergency relief than reintegration and development support.

To conclude, we face in the 21st century a monumental challenge – how to effectively provide protection and assistance to persons forcibly displaced and at risk within their own countries. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has described this challenge as unprecedented because it requires finding ways to respond to what is essentially an internal crisis. He has also warned that if left unaddressed, there will be serious consequences beyond the humanitarian. Internal displacement not only often causes internal instability but may spill across borders and upset external and regional stability. Clearly, there is a compelling need for the international community to become involved. When we see the pictures of children without limbs in Sierra Leone, starving to death in the Sudan, running over land mines in Chechnya, or raped in Bosnia, we know we must become involved. With organizations like Save the Children, we also know we will take on this challenge and deal with it. Just as the international community found innovative ways to respond to the refugee crisis at the end of the second world war, so we must now find the will and the way to respond effectively to the global crisis of internal displacement.