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A Systems Approach to Child Protection in PRS

Protection Programming in Refugee Situations

The systems approach[1] aims for a holistic and comprehensive strategy that theoretically includes refugee children, considering the complex dynamics that may influence the well-being of all and especially refugee children as described previously. Even though refugee protection is primarily the responsibility of states, they can invite UNHCR to assist them when they lack appropriate capacities. Under its mandate to protect and assist refugees, UNHCR must cooperate with governments and find durable solutions for refugees. Although children constitute one group among refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, in 2014 about 51 % of all refugees were younger than 18 (UNHCR 2015, 3). Moreover, UNICEF (2014) points out that “15 million children are caught up in violent conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the State of Palestine, Syria and Ukraine—including those internally displaced or living as refugees.”

Although refugee children are generally protected by the CRC equally (Article 22), the manner of refugee aid provision is primarily based on the Convention Relating the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the 1967 Protocol. It is characterized as a status- and needs-based approach because those persons defined as refugees are protected and assisted because of their humanitarian needs (Zetter 2015). Even though the 1951 Refugee Convention only mentions children in Article 5 about Freedom of Religion, UNHCR’s Executive Committee adopted several Conclusions underlining the need to protect and assist refugee children. Combined with Article 39 of the CRC regarding the need to promote physical and psychological recovery, social reintegration, and protection of children, political elites are obligated to ensure such measures. Therefore, the protection of refugee children is a key human rights obligation based on the indivisibility of human rights and the obligation of states and other duty- bearers to respect, protect, and fulfill these rights.

The UNHCR explicitly stresses the need for refugee children’s protection in its guidelines (UNHCR 2008b, 2012), calls for close cooperation with state actors and other agencies to strengthen national child protection systems, and outlines a process of care for unaccompanied and separated children (UNHCR 2008b, 17-19). This includes considering the best interest of children in finding durable solutions and determining the most appropriate temporary care measures (Ibid.). In 2012, the UNHCR published “A Framework for the Protection of Children,” which reflects the developments towards systemic thinking to lead to a comprehensive strategy for the UNCHR and its partners to strengthen national child protection systems. It objective is to protect all children, not only specific groups of children (e.g., unaccompanied minors).

The framework’s aim is to address protection risks by working with duty-bearers at all levels including family, community, and national (UNHCR 2012, 9), acknowledging the vital roles of all actors and children as rights-holders based on the human rights-based approach. The UNHCR defines six overarching goals for child protection: safety in a variety of contexts and by diverse actors, children’s participation and capacity-building, child-friendly procedures, legal documentation, targeted support for girls and boys with specific needs, and achieving durable solutions in the best interest of all children (Ibid., 18-28). For its realization, concrete outcomes and actions for children are suggested, guided by the components of a child protection system.

The UNHCR stresses the following components: Legal and Policy Framework, Knowledge and Data, Coordination, Human and Financial Capacity, Prevention and Response, and Advocacy and Awareness (UNHCR 2012). These assumptions and actions for children reflect that child protection is more than pure safety but rather the well-being of them, including protection, provision, and participation (3Ps). This is a too-often-neglected concept in refugee protection and related research (Habashi et al. 2012; Young-Bruehl 2013, 10, 147). In addition to the UNHCR, other agencies, such as UNICEF and Save the Children (2011, 2013), have specified their understanding of child protection systems in refugee contexts during the previous several years, which clearly is contributing to developing and strengthening comprehensive and innovative approaches in operations.

Consequently, the shift occurred not only in certain agencies but also is marked by local, regional, and international commitments. This has been shown in workshops and conferences at which agencies discussed and further developed the systems approach. A milestone was the 2012 conference “A Better Way to Protect All Children. The Theory and Practice of Child Protection Systems” in New Delhi (UNICEF et al. 2013) where discussions were stimulated and links between research and practice promoted. Regarding the protection of refugee children, a variety of speakers stressed efforts of systems-related thinking in their presentations. It was noted that interventions for refugee children became more effective through strengthened child protection systems in diverse contexts. The systems approach was highlighted as holding the potential to better understand perspectives, concerns, and needs of specific groups as well as how actors can respond to these concerns and needs (Ibid., 49).

Nonetheless, what is missing in all these documents and strategies is the question of how to better protect children who are stuck in exile for years without a durable solution in sight. According to the UNHCR, existing displacement situations tend to prolong as durable solutions remain elusive because of lasting conflicts in home countries resulting in protracted refugee situations (PRS). The UNHCR defines a PRS as “one in which 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile for five years or longer in a given asylum country” (UNHCR 2015, 11). With an average of 20 years (Milner and Loescher 2011, 3), some PRS last more than 30 years (UNHCR 2015, 11). In this context, the question arises as to whether a systems approach is suitable for refugee children’s protection in the Global South, especially if the protection of children by aid agencies is not a temporary construct but a long-term solution because of the PRS.

  • [1] This approach is not new per se, but has been used in many Western countries for decades ( social welfare systems).
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