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Working with Children in PRS: A Subsystem within the Child Protection System

When focusing on refugee children in PRS, the complexity of challenges consisting of numerous diverse yet interdependent rights abuses are important to consider, which the examples from Uganda as well as other empirical studies reveal (Clark 2007; Cooper 2008; Harrell-Bond 1999, 2000; Ensor 2014). The systems approach to child protection offers to more comprehensively protect and assist children in refugee contexts by considering the complexity of rights and needs. Although this obviously is crucial in humanitarian emergency situations, it becomes even more relevant in PRS because children are stuck in limbo for many years, and often are unable to play, be safe, and participate in social or political processes. Supporting a child-friendly way to grow up therefore can theoretically be supported by a systems approach.

With the framing of the systems approach in mind, the pivotal question arises again: Are refugee children in protracted crisis situations protected according to their rights? And if not, what are the reasons for asymmetric dynamics in the system negatively impacting the status and well-being of the child? If the systems approach to child protection aims to protect all children in a region—thus also refugee children—integrated and comprehensive measures are required to address them as active rights-holders. During the New Delhi Conference, the UNHCR members stated a key challenge in their work with a systems approach: “[I]n many cases, [...] national CP Systems are only available for its citizens or permanent residents [...] in which case UNHCR has a legal responsibility to ensure protection for refugee children” (UNICEF et al. 2013, 43).

For this reason, the UNHCR refers to a subsystem in a child protection system specifically for refugee children, indicating that they fall outside of national schemes. Although the nested structure reveals that a child protection system can hold many subsystems that creates a service continuum, even the subsystems need to undergo the same design considerations as the larger system—that is, encompassing structures, functions, and capacities that “have to stand in symmetry with the purpose of the subsystem” (Wulcyn et al. 2012, 22/23). But then, what is the purpose of this subsystem?

If the state is unable and/or unwilling to include refugee children in its national child protection system, the UNHCR has to generate a subsystem because of its protection mandate. Nevertheless, the refugee protection system is based on humanitarian aid mostly outside of national schemes. Even though humanitarian aid focuses on short-term aid to meet basic needs, refugees often are isolated in camps where agencies create dependencies on their aid structures (Krause 2014), which reveals the provisional nature of the support systems. The purpose of the protection subsystem for refugee children is therefore also limited in time, aiming to provide transitional protection for them while they are confined in the humanitarian protection system.

Although the goal of the subsystem for refugee children is defined by actors working in this system (e.g., UNHCR through its protection framework and relevant partners), the subsystem is still needs to be connected with the larger child protection system. This is because child protection and “the establishment and implementation of child protection systems, in accordance with their international obligations, ensuring access to all children under their jurisdiction” is a state responsibility (UNHCR 2012, 15). Despite the UNHCR’s intention to strengthen such systems and offer refugee children access to services when states are unable to do so, subsystems in PRS are nevertheless created that are of a provisional nature because of the humanitarian link. Furthermore, the UNHCR—as well as other aid agencies—depends on voluntary funding by donor states and foundations (Krause 2015) in its work in general and with child protection systems.

When refugee children remain in humanitarian subsystems, even in PRS, goals are not always in line with the protection needs and their rights. As has been shown in this chapter by the preceding examples, girls and boys face multiple risks and rights violations during displacement, revealing complex and intertwined abuses that happen in a variety of settings. As the number and duration of PRS increase, refugees have to endure such conditions for several years “all without knowing where and when they ... [may] find a solution to their plight” (Milner and Loescher 2011, 4). As the examples also reveal, protection risks and concerns of children and youth in PRS go far beyond basic human needs in emergencies (e.g., shelter or food). The needs outpace the scope of the humanitarian relief system, which is why the status of the children (outcomes) is not symmetric with the components of the subsystem on which they are relying. In contrast, in protracted refugee situations child protection subsystems have to be adjusted to the duration, requiring better integration in the larger system to tackle humanitarian needs and offering sustainable perspectives.

Voluntary repatriation remains the politically desired durable solution to refugee situations, but lasting conflicts and insecurity in home countries routinely prevent timely returns. In aiming for repatriation, host countries rarely, or insufficiently, integrate refugees in national agendas, demonstrating another asymmetry in PRS worldwide. From a systems perspective, the common goal is refugee children’s protection according to their rights in the national protection system emanating from the normative framework. As described earlier, this normative framework connects all child protection systems with the context and actors as well as to the broader system of social protection in which a protection system is embedded. Nonetheless, despite the increase of PRS, the UNHCR’s support and protection schemes remain inflexibly focused on humanitarian short-term aid. While this is the most relevant in emergency situations, it is simply not enough in PRS because they require including medium-term aid and protection (Krause 2014). A lack leaves not only refugees in restrictive conditions but also leads to refugee children falling outside of the protection’s scope. From systems logic, this has far-reaching consequences, as the overall goal of refugee children in PRS to be protected according to their rights cannot be fulfilled within the current refugee protection system.

Based on the challenges refugee children face worldwide, two critical consequences must be pointed out: (1) the systems approach to child protection shows that the protection subsystems for refugee children are insufficiently linked with other systems and require more effective unification, including the cooperation of diverse stakeholders; and (2) the protection subsystem around the specific target group, “refugee children,” does not function on a long-term basis and needs to be improved and adjusted to contexts and durations. Although child protection systems “may be the entry point to sustainability and equitably addressing the majority of child protection issues” (UNICEF et al. 2013, 40), these two critical consequences indicate the necessity of rethinking how refugee children can be better protected through integrated holistic measures that will strengthen the child protection system in the long run. The consequences also reveal the distinct need to rethink the whole refugee protection system and “to consider issues as discourse changers rather than entry points per se” (Ibid.).

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