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Spectrum and Examples of Protection Risks and Vulnerabilities of PRS Children

For refugee children, PRS often means a long confrontation with challenges and rights violations, being trapped in camps, depending on aid agencies and structures, and feeling lost because of an uncertain future (Clark 2007; Cooper 2008). Although children often lack protection and assistance in refugee camps, including basic services, aid dependency also leaves them in limbo with poor conditions in which to develop (Harrell- Bond 1999, 2000). Children face obstacles but also develop diverse coping mechanisms (Ensor 2014).

In contrast to growing up with supportive structures and spaces to play and be children, studies stress the dangers of trauma and possible posttraumatic disorders (Daud et al. 2008; Schaal and Elbert 2006) that often are inadequately treated by aid programs (Krause 2015). Likewise, local protection strategies for youth and refugees is noted to be insufficient or even disregarded (Clark-Kazak 2014). Many children therefore find themselves in situations “characterized by feelings of loss, deprivation and hardship so intense that they shape to a large extent the ways boys and girls come to think about and try to make sense of their lives” (Mann 2012, 458).

In the context of a recent project on sexual and gender-based violence against women in refugee camps,[1] the research team also worked with underage refugees. Although it was not part of the project to explicitly investigate the existence (or in fact absence) of a child protection system, the case study sheds light on the diverse challenges refugee children face. The study was carried out from February to April 2014 in the Kyaka II Refugee Settlement in Uganda; it was established in 1983 and hosts more than 22,000 refugees. Of those there 37 adolescents were randomly selected for the study based on their willingness to participate and openness. They engaged in journal writing with open-ended questions as a child-friendly method. During the writing exercises, participants explained protection challenges to be intertwined and interrelated, as the examples that follow show.

Sexual violence was faced especially by girls (but certainly also by boys[2]) in the form of rape, attempts to rape, and sexual harassment. Victims are attacked not only by strangers during daily work on the fields, fetching water, or collecting firewood (Interview of refugee girl, age 15, 03/05/2014) but also on their way to school and while at school from teachers (Interview of refugee boy, age 15, 04/04/2014). A girl noted that “[a]t school, most of the girls have been harassed by male teachers, through demanding them for sex, and when they refuse, they are made to fail, which affects their education” (Interview of refugee girl 1, age 16, 03/05/2014); these claims were supported by a female teacher (Interview of female EI teacher at Base Camp, 03/25/2014). Children also face sexual attacks and domestic violence at home, mainly from fathers (Interview of refugee boy, age 17, 04/03/2014). Besides physical beatings (Interview of refugee boy, age 18, 03/05/2014), girls and boys have to help in the household; girls often must help with cleaning, washing clothes, cooking, and fetching water, and boys help on the fields, often overburdening themselves (Interview of refugee boy, age 18, 03/26/2014).

Early and forced marriage of girls and denial of resources as gender- based forms of discrimination are also widespread. Girls face forced marriage at a young age because of cultural traditions among some clans of refugees. This puts them in danger of further violence in domestic spheres (Interview of refugee girl, age 15, 03/05/2014), but the practice also has economic motives because of the value of dowries (Interview of refugee girl, age 17, 03/05/2014). Moreover, although education is supposed to be free and accessible for girls and boys in refugee settlements, fees are expected. Because caretakers are unable to pay the school fees, or believe that girls do not need education as women are to take care of households, girls often have to drop out of school (Interviews of refugee girl, age 16, 04/03/2014; refugee girl, age 18, 03/05/2014). Denial of resources also correlates with domestic violence and can include “denying shelter to a person, denial of right to economic benefits, denial of support, school fees to the children, etc.” (Interview of female EI employee, 05/20/2014).

Finally, children fear that families may separate and break apart (Interview of refugee girl 2, age 16, 03/05/2014). Since Kyaka II is remote and isolated and services are limited, adult refugees lack access to employment and thus insufficiently support their families, burdening not only adults but also children:

When I arrived here in Kyaka II life was not altogether good. After a few years, my father died, that was in 2004. Then life became worse, although refugees were given some help by providing us with everything we wanted besides money. But now, I don’t know whether I will continue with my studies because my mum is getting old, she is jobless and poor and she is unable to afford the school fees. I’m really studying now because of God’s mercy otherwise my life is really in danger. What a miserable life this is!” (Interview of refugee boy, age 18, 03/05/2014)

The challenges refugee children and youth expressed in the preceding paragraphs about the Kyaka II Refugee Settlement confirms one central assumption: the rights violations of children and youth during displacement go far beyond emergency needs and stress multiple protection gaps in diverse settings (e.g., at home, at work, in schools, etc.). Furthermore, the latter quote provides specific insights into the challenges and fears a boy faces when he has been living in a refugee camp for more than 10 years. Considering protracted refugee situations in view of child protection, the previously mentioned risks are prolonged and become a part of childrens everyday lives.

  • [1] The research project “Gender in Confined Spaces” was carried out at the Centre for ConflictStudies, University of Marburg, and it was generously funded by the German Foundation for PeaceResearch.
  • [2] For further information about sexual violence against boys and adult male victims, see Dolan (2014, 2).
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