This crisis is about children; the UN summit for refugees should be, too

As world leaders gather in New York, David Morley, President of UNICEF Canada, lays out six commitments the Canadian government — and global community — should make toward the protection of child refugees.  

By: /
September 15, 2016
refugee children
Migrant children walk as they wait to cross the border with Croatia near the village of Berkasovo, Serbia, October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica/File Photo

The fate of nearly 50 million children is in the hands of world leaders next week as they meet for twin global refugee and migrant summits in New York. It is a watershed moment; it will test the world’s resolve to ensuring the protection and well-being of these children, and to guaranteeing a better and more responsible international response to their plight. The summits must answer the call to action to the global community from children and youth to help them chart a new, more hopeful course for their lives.

In a year of significant humanitarian emergencies, the refugee crisis has grown to unprecedented proportions. Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia have seen too many children flee their homes, forced by decisions and dynamics beyond their control. Millions of people have been displaced by violence in Africa’s Lake Chad basin, while countries in the Sahel experienced the growing phenomenon of climate refugees (those forced to leave due to severe drought). In Central America, there has been a mass outflow of children trying to escape gang violence and poverty.

Almost half the world’s refugees are children. Children who are caught in conflict or disaster represent untold wasted potential, countless lost contributions, and unspeakable suffering that can have tragic consequences today and on their adult selves and their communities. Children like Alan Kurdi, whose three-year-old body washed up on the shores of Turkey one year ago, have had their entire futures stolen from them because of an adult’s war.

The even greater tragedy, however, would be to forget that each of these child refugees is just that – a child caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Whether migrant or refugee or internally displaced, a child is a child. Period. Each child has individual needs and, no matter where they are or where they come from, each has the same rights. And each of these children must be front and centre in the debates and in the outcomes of next week’s summits.

Action for children cannot wait. For the millions of children already living as migrants and refugees, millions more could follow in their footsteps in the decades to come, their lives and their futures dependent on the actions taken next week.

Canada has a long history of supporting refugees. Its government demonstrated global leadership in response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, mirrored by the tremendous goodwill and generosity of Canadians who are supporting the more than 29,000 Syrian refugees who have come to Canada, and by supporting UNICEF efforts and those of our partners in the hardest-hit areas of Syria and in the region.

However, even here at home, immigrant and refugee children are among the most vulnerable members of Canadian society, and we must take further steps to create an effective legal, policy and practice approach to ensuring their well-being, and to strengthening their bonds to family, citizenship and nation. And we must promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization. Canada has the opportunity to serve as a model of best practice to the world.

"Action for children cannot wait."

As a co-host of President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis on September 20, Canada should continue to demonstrate leadership in humanitarian engagement, and reiterate its commitment to putting children first both at home and abroad.

To that end, I am calling on the Canadian government to support and lead the international community in support of the rights of migrant and refugee children, and to use the opportunities of the twin summits to achieve six clear and actionable outcomes that protect and advance those rights.

First, we must protect children, particularly the unaccompanied or separated, against trafficking, exploitation, abuse and discrimination. We must strengthen child protection systems and reduce their vulnerabilities.  

Second, we must end the detention of children on the basis of their migration status and work to provide practical alternatives to detention wherever migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking children and their families are involved.

Third, we must preserve a child’s family unity and legal identity. Keeping families together is one of the best ways to protect children and guarantee their right to family life.

Fourth, we must provide a child with equal access to quality services. A child’s migration status must never be a barrier to their ability to use essential services.

Fifth, we must act against the root causes of large-scale movements of refugees and migrants. By addressing the root causes of conflict, violence and poverty, we can prevent much of the forced migration we see today.

Lastly, Canada should support the Education Cannot Wait platform to increase access to education for children displaced by crisis.

The global refugee and migrant crisis is, more than anything else, a children’s crisis, and we look to Canada to ensure that children are at the forefront of the agenda next week.