Twenty-five years ago today world leaders adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most complete statement in history of humanity’s aspiration to give children universal rights protection to achieve their full potential. This noble document outlined the steps that we should all take to allow the youngest and most vulnerable in our communities to realise the highest levels of human dignity.
A quarter a century on, the abysmal situation on the ground confronting the Palestine refugee children we serve makes a mockery of that convention. We see schools bombed, children killed and maimed, families torn apart and forced to flee their homes and countries.
The vulnerability of Palestinian children and youth is more acute than ever before. Palestine refugee children are exposed to considerable child protection concerns including physical and emotional violence, sexual abuse, child marriage, detention, child labor and the effects of armed conflict.
Poverty, stifled employment opportunities and overcrowded living conditions in refugee camps are just some of the elements that exacerbate child protection concerns for Palestine refugee children. The data are alarming:
- Over 500 Palestinian children were killed in the recent onslaught on Gaza. Another five hundred were orphaned. Moreover, the majority of Gaza’s 110,000 homeless are children.
- While less news-worthy, violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, including children, has spiked, and is now double that of last year.
- The slaughter continues in Syria, with no apparent consideration for the lives of the precious and innocent.
- In the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, children have died due to lack of medical care, and suffer severe malnutrition and dehydration.
- In Lebanon, Palestine refugee children and their families live on the margins of society, unable to access jobs and services.
- For Palestinian children fleeing Syria, the dangers are many. In some cases entry to safety is simply denied to all Palestinians; other states discriminate in their treatment of Palestinians. Until the end of 2013, of the seventy-four documented individuals of forcible return from Jordan to Syria of Palestinians, thirty were of Palestine refugee children. Since the beginning of 2014, of the 106 documented individuals of forcible return from Jordan to Syria of Palestinians, forty-three were of Palestine refugee children. These are the numbers that have approached UNRWA for assistance and we believe that there are more who have not requested UNRWA to intervene.
- Palestinian Children who are able to reach safe ground are subject to web of complex threats, including lack of legal status including from the denial of birth registration, forcible return, threat from sexual predators, and dire poverty.
- Palestinian mothers, children and youth seeking safe refuge and a better future have chanced a terrifying, perilous journey across the Mediterranean or through ISIL territory, sometimes with disastrous outcomes.
- In addition to the impact of armed conflict, according to our statistics, nearly half of the gender based violence survivors are below the age of eighteen years.
Palestinians have a specific and unique vulnerability, and they often speak of feeling trapped, singled out and unwelcome. But in today’s world, these are anxieties shared by many. Palestine refugee children are in a sense the ‘canary in the coal mine’, the first to experience vulnerabilities that others will subsequently face. UNRWA’s mandate for an especially vulnerable community, its experience in serving beneficiaries directly, and its ability to be flexible and innovative, may provide insight to build on when considering the protection of all children and youth.
I would like to share with you five "lessons" from our experience:
Protection through services, and maintaining normalcy. UNRWA’s raison d’etre has always been “investing in the future.” Our services, especially our largest programmes in education and health, provide direct protection to children. Half a million children attend UNRWA schools and more than 260,000 children under the age of five receive health care at UNRWA clinics where we also screen and treat victims of child abuse and gender based violence. As important as our services is the continuity and predictability of these services. Families and communities are sustained when they can count on UNRWA’s support structures even under dire circumstances. Nothing protects children or prepares youth for the future like secure families and communities. We should not just look at addressing specific protection problems, but take a more holistic view and work to create a base of security and support for families.
Our staff are refugees and are embedded in camps, communities. UNRWA has more than 30,000 staff, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian themselves. We are embedded in communities and understand the problems. This is our comparative advantage.
Education and schools as loci for our protection responsibilities and place for stability. With so much of the region in active conflict, and with so many children’s lives in turmoil, we recognize that offering students stable access to education is crucial.
Our first priority is simply keeping schools open where circumstances allow. In Syria and Gaza, UNRWA largely maintained education services. Alternative locations and courageous staff keep schools open even in areas that are hard to reach. Through innovation and partnerships, we reach even children who cannot come to school.
The self-learning materials UNRWA has developed in Syria for English, Mathematics, Arabic and Science have been adopted by UNICEF and will be used in schools throughout Syria. These materials supplement UNRWA’s satellite channel, which broadcasts from Gaza lessons on core subject areas. Viewership data indicate that these lessons are viewed throughout the Middle East, not just in UNRWA’s five fields, and even in Europe and North America.
UNRWA’s long-standing human rights enrichment programme and its newer human rights curriculum bring children into conversation about their rights at an early age.
Organizational advocacy. At UNRWA we advocate for policy makers to address core problems. But that implies that member states must sometimes hear messages that are uncomfortable. Occupation is the root of most protection problems in Gaza and the West Bank. An insidious and persistent erosion of rights affects every child in Palestine. Recurrent and deadly military operations are not incidents; they are a structural feature of occupation. Let’s demonstrate how and where it deprives children and youth of their rights and demand redress. We must use and uphold the international legal system. It’s all we have: protection doesn’t exist without rights.
Youth voice and agency. This is the point I would like to end with, because it is as important as anything we do to protect children and youth. It is in effect promoting self-protection.
We just saw Malala win the Nobel Peace Prize. She recently decided to give 50,000 USD to UNRWA to rebuild schools damaged and partially destroyed by Israel the recent conflict. She is an important inspiration, a courageous girl standing up for her rights. But she is not unique in her wishes to have all the opportunities and protection we assume for our own children.
UNRWA’s tradition of school parliaments gives children voice in the way their schools are run. We are now piloting an innovative project called MyVoiceMySchool. Using Skype, we link conflict-affected youth in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan with peers in the UK to develop advocacy on education and give voice to youth on their futures. Conversations are vibrant and exciting as youth discover shared values, fears and priorities.
Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines children’s right to have a voice, particularly in matters that concern them. Ensuring that children and youth are not ignored and have the space to define their own lives are incredibly powerful ways to promote protection. And this voice and vision transcend political agendas, silencing the senseless violence and destruction.
Ayat, a fifteen-year-old girl in a collective shelter in Damascus, confidently says she plans to rebuild her country more beautiful than it ever was. “In silence, I am powerless but with my voice, I can do many things”, she says. It is only when our children see they have audience, know they can be heard, and can effect change – that they will.