Will Canada Remain Committed to Helping Children in Emergency Situations?

Huffington Post Canada, June 11, 2015

This year has already become the worst year since 1945 for children who have been displaced and forced to flee as refugees, and for children who had their schools attacked and destroyed.

Today, over half of the world’s record 38 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are children; and half of the world’s 16.7 million refugees are also children.

Tragically, the numbers of boys and girls who are internally displaced or forced to flee as refugees is likely to increase: the conflicts in Burundi, Iraq, northern Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, the Central African Republic and Yemen; and natural disasters in Nepal all drive up refugee numbers. And these conflicts, crises, and disasters impact children the hardest.

Canadians should know about these crises, their impacts on children, and how youth can be better protected and educated in emergency situations. We have always been and will continue to be measured by how well we protect the most vulnerable people in the world.

In Burundi, political tensions contribute to a growing humanitarian crisis. Since early April, 110,000 Burundians have fled across borders ; and a devastating cholera epidemic is now spreading among 50,000 refugees gathered on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Almost equally tragic is the fact that children are missing out on their education, as 1,100 schools are closed or disrupted, according to UNICEF. Students and teachers have been deliberately targeted by armed groups, and many classrooms have been damaged, looted or occupied.

In Iraq and Syria, where the number of displaced people is almost 15 million, the growing humanitarian crises leave aid agencies struggling to deliver vital supplies.

In the last few weeks, more than 90 people, including at least 11 children, have been “executed” by ISIS fighters in the Syrian city of Palmyra. The children of Iraq and Syria desperately need humanitarian protection, psychosocial support, and education.

In South Sudan, reports of forced recruitment of children are increasing. Over a recent, two-week period, dozens of children were killed, at least 12 raped, and others abducted and recruited in a series of attacks in Unity State.

Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan, said, “If children are to be protected from further harm, an immediate cessation of hostilities is urgently needed, together with full access for humanitarian workers.”

In the Central African Republic, there are at last some signs of hope. After two years of heavy fighting, more than 300 children were released from armed groupsfollowing a UNICEF-facilitated agreement. But we cannot forget that between 6,000 and 10,000 children still remain connected with the country’s armed factions.

In Yemen, the current conflict unfolds in the context of a pre-existing large-scale humanitarian crisis. In January 2015, some 16 million people in Yemen or 61 percent of the population were in need of humanitarian assistance, including 7.4 million children .

In the first 4 weeks of the crisis, an estimated 150,000 people were displacedover 760 killed and 2900 injured (including at least 115 children killed and 172 injured).Two million children have been directly affected by the closure of over 3,700 schools across the country.

In these horrific situations, schools offer safety, opportunity, and restore hope; and when girls are at school, both child abuse and child marriage are dramatically reduced. This is why the international inter-agency coalition GCPEA developedGuidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, which were finalized in December, 2014.

The aim is to better protect schools and universities from use by armed groups for military purposes, and to minimize the negative impact that armed conflict has on students’ safety and education. A Safe Schools Declaration has also been developed through state consultations in Geneva.

Canadians must ask whether their government is indeed committed to protecting the lives of children in these conflict areas, preserving their future by championing the Guidelines, and endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration at the May 28-29 conference in Oslo.

As it has in the past, Canada must remain committed to protecting the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in those areas of the world that are torn apart by conflict, violence and disaster.