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Protecting separated and unaccompanied Syrian refugee children in Jordan

News and Press Release
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By David Youngmeyer

ZA’ATARI, Jordan, 19 February 2013 – As the Syrian conflict continues unabated, with 1,850 people crossing into Jordan every day, a small but regular flow of refugees are unaccompanied and separated children.

As of 8 February, a total of 45 separated and unaccompanied children had been identified since the beginning of 2013.

Keeping unaccompanied children safe

Reaching the safety of Jordan, these children can be in a distressed state – shocked, tired, hungry, uncertain about the future. Some are wounded.

UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Camilla Jones is part of the front-line team working to keep these vulnerable children safe. Ms. Jones is regularly at Za’atari refugee camp, which hosts tens of thousands of refugees.

New arrivals are met at the border and escorted by bus to the camp. They congregate at the reception centre, where they are registered by UNHCR and receive a meal and basic supplies such as blankets.

Ms. Jones says that new arrivals are screened for unaccompanied and separated children. Once identified, the children are provided with safe alternative care arrangements until they can be reunited with relatives.

“The key goal is to reunify unaccompanied and separated children with their parents, where possible and appropriate, and to provide protection and alternative care in the meantime,” she says. “Child protection is quite literally life-saving. If a child is without family protection, he or she is at greater risk of being exploited and may find it hard to cope.”

Providing support, reuniting families

Ms. Jones says these children struggle to come to terms with their experiences of conflict and displacement, which are still raw. “We provide them with support and activities to occupy their minds and help them to have a greater purpose. It is clear that children are frustrated at the lack of their ability to change the situation in Syria, and this comes out in their play and interactions, which can be aggressive at times.”

UNICEF partner International Medical Corps works with a group of adolescent boys, giving them the chance to discuss their feelings, which helps them deal with depression and aggressive behaviour.

During a recent mission to the camp, Ms. Jones met a 6-year-old boy at the reception centre who had arrived without his family, carrying just a few bits of clothing. The boy had been identified as unaccompanied and some basic information collected about his situation.

Later, a man claiming to be the boy’s father arrived at the camp and asked to be reunited with him. It came to light that the boy had been left in the care of an uncle in the Syrian Arab Republic. When the uncle could no longer care for the child, the boy was sent to Jordan. He tried twice before he managed to cross the border to safety.

After confirming that the man was really the boy’s father, another UNICEF implementing partner, International Rescue Committee, worked with the Government of Jordan to allow the boy to leave the camp and reintegrate into family life with his father, from whom he had been separated for more than one month.

“Most of the unaccompanied and separated children arriving at Za’atari are between 14 and 17 years old,” says Ms. Jones. “Very young children usually stay close to their parents, so it is rare for them to cross the border alone.”

Enabling urgent scale-up

Ms. Jones says there are many reasons why children become unaccompanied or separated. “Separation can be a result of the conflict and displacement. They are fleeing the violence and may need medical treatment. Some arrive to join family members,” Ms. Jones explains.

But Ms. Jones cautions that resources are needed to ensure children will be safe, as more and more cross the border. “The huge influx of new refugees is placing a strain on existing protection systems, with so many more children to locate throughout the camp, and then support and follow up. Each case is important and needs to be reviewed closely to find solutions, but it is a very time-intensive process.

“This programming needs to be sustained for the duration of displacement to prevent the protective environment, that staff form around the child, from breaking down. This requires sustained commitment and funding, but programmes for unaccompanied and separated children throughout Jordan need additional funds to enable urgent scale-up,” she says.