Emergencies and Natural Disasters: measuring children’s vulnerability to minimise their suffering

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By Anna Skeels, Programme Manager, Measuring Separation in Emergencies

In this photograph, two young Syrian girls stand together, close to the border they have recently crossed. Thousands of children like them have fled Syria, many without parents or primary care givers; some have had to leave their home without any adult relatives at all.

‘Unaccompanied and separated’

There are various reasons why a child caught up in an emergency or a natural disaster may end up classified as ‘unaccompanied and separated’. The separation may be accidental, caused by sudden displacement or death.

It might be due to force: abduction, trafficking or the recruitment of children into armed groups all flourish in unusually chaotic situations. It may be the result of a difficult decision made by the family to protect their children by sending them elsewhere. Without their relatives, these children are at greater risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect.

Even if they escape all these dangers, they lack the loving and consistent care essential for their recovery from an emergency.

Tracing relatives, preventing separation

Save the Children works with organisations and communities to care for these children, trace their relatives and reunite them with their families as quickly as possible. We also work to prevent separation in the first place, raising awareness among emergency-affected communities of the risks and dangers.

To do this work well, we need to know how many children have been affected and where those children are. We also need to know about the causes of separation; the risks they face and their changing needs.

How do you gather accurate information in an emergency?

In an emergency setting, however, such information can be hard to find – and when you do find it, often it is inaccurate, unreliable or out-of-date. This is particularly true in the very early stages of an emergency, when a lot of the population may have been displaced and systems for measurement are disrupted or not yet in place. And the facts also change over time: a child separated by conflict may then become vulnerable to trafficking or recruitment into armed groups.

Still, even if measuring the scale and nature of separation in emergencies is hard, it is vital that we try. Without this information, we are not able to raise the funds or deliver the help that children urgently need.

Measurement will lead to improvement

To address this problem, the US Government’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has funded Save the Children to set up the Measuring Separation in Emergencies project, which aims to develop new, practical tools for measuring separation at different stages in an emergency.

We are already working on a modelling tool which will try to estimate how many children might be separated from their families at the beginning of an emergency. We are also exploring how emergency-affected communities might use mobile phones to update us on changes in the circumstances of children who have been separated. It is a very exciting project: if we can measure the number of separated children, the circumstances in which those separations occurred and the ways in which the children’s situation changes over time, we can find swifter, more effective ways to change their futures for the better.