NGOs and government discuss gaps in the protection of young refugees
New Delhi, 28 December, 2012 – Despite legislative improvements in the protection of children in India, young refugees continue to be particularly vulnerable to neglect and abuse. This was the subject of a meeting in mid-December between Representatives from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the government, NGOs and advocates.
During the meeting, held by Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) in India, the participants came together to map the protection of children and seek solutions which minimise gaps in service provision.
The Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act of 2012 was signed into law in June, "significantly up-scaling the protection regime available to children of India. While India has not signed the 1951 refugee convention, these safeguards are meant to protect refugees as well. This is the first time a specific law has been introduced to address the issue of sexual violence against children", according to HRLN.
"We've read the judgements; they have beautiful language and we think 'problem solved.' But then nothing works; that's a limitation. The law is a limited tool and reminds us of the importance with being on the ground", said Anant Kumar Asthana, HRLN advocate and lawyer.
While the majority of the 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers in India from Tibet and Sri Lanka are directly registered with the government and live in camps. According to deputy chief of UNHCR, Hans Friedrich Schrodder, 21,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with UNHCR and mostly live in New Delhi. Most refugees living in New Delhi are Burmese and Afghani and 35 percent are children.
Progress made, but more needed. Schodder commended India on its laws that protect refugee children, including the right to public education, healthcare, juvenile justice, religious freedom, freedom of movement and now child safety. India also recently ratified the UN protocol on trafficking which is believed to help strengthen children protection.
India is one of the countries UNHCR has chosen to implement the Protection of Children Framework by making specific plans in the country office for child protection.
Still, refugee children are at risk. Many have to find work to help support their families in the informal labour market, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
According to Schodder, refugee children tend to miss out on education. Before flight from their home countries, they have normally missed out on educational opportunities and during transit they face difficulties accessing education.
Although refugee children can enrol in public schools, UNHCR reports that this rarely occurs. Socioeconomic factors, linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, as well as bullying and assault all dissuade refugee children from going to school in India.
"When it comes to local integration with local children, they are teased when they don't speak the local language, so they refuse to go to school", said Hakima, a Somali refugee, who has been working on women's education and capacity building through UNHCR.
The issue of education resounded throughout the dialogue. Akhu, a refugee from Burma's Chin State works for UNHCR's implementing partner that provides education and livelihood opportunities to refugees in the city.
Akhu has witnessed first-hand the difficulties refugees face when trying to access education, even though it is their right to do so. Without sufficient knowledge of Hindi or the means to pay for an education, most young refugees instead work in restaurants or as housekeepers; despite the risk of being molested, raped or having their pay withheld.
In order to make education more accessible, JRS holds English and computer literacy courses for the Burmese Chin community. The UNHCR implementing partner in New Delhi also offers English and Hindi courses.
Despite assistance provided to refugees in integrating into the school system, accessing the Indian university system remains unattainable.
Suraiya, a refugee from Afghanistan living in New Delhi hopes for higher education opportunities for her daughter who just passed her final year of secondary school, "Refugees are also human beings. We need to come together to work … so they can study past high school. All are working hard, but more is needed".
Molly Mullen, communications consultant, JRS International