Invisible Children

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children

Demographics of Invisibility

Refugee, IDP and Stateless Children


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 51.2 million “people of concern” in 2014 – stateless persons, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.  This represents the highest such total since the end of World War II.   Of these, 48% are children under the age of 18, with 13% under the age of five.[i]  Children forced to flee their homes due to civil violence are thrust into turmoil, losing touch with the points of stability necessary for adequate development.

Worldwide, then, more than 21 million children and young people are refugees, having crossed national borders to escape conflict, or have been internally displaced within their own countries.  They face challenges owed to frequent movement and little permanent social infrastructure. 

More than nine million people have been uprooted by Syria’s civil violence, roughly 40% of that country’s pre-war population.  Of these, three million have crossed into Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, while six million remain internally displaced.  Half are children.  Aid organizations and the UNHCR have warned that because of the impact of forced displacement on Syria’s children, the country runs the risk of a “Lost Generation,” its young people uprooted and subject to inhumane labor practices, trafficking and poverty.[ii]

While the majority of those who cross international borders to flee civil violence are hosted in wealthy nations, millions of others are granted asylum within their regions, often in low-income areas with little capacity to care adequately for additional “guests.”  In measuring refugee populations with economic development indices, this dynamic becomes even clearer: Pakistan hosted the largest number of refugees in relation to its economic capacity, with 553 refugees per $1 of GDP per capita, followed by Ethiopia at 303 refugees per $1 of GDP per capita, and Kenya, with 301 refugees.[iii]

Aside, then, from the terror inherent in warfare that displaces home and family, millions of children find themselves in situations where they are provided the means to survive, but little else.  Camps and displacement centers may attend to the most basic physical needs, but education and training are not uniformly available, and are often of poor quality.  Gross enrollment ratios (GERs) for refugees are, with a few exceptions, much lower than national GERs.  Refugee GERs were 76% for six to 11 year olds and 36% for 12 to 17 year olds, compared to global GERs of 90% and 67%, respectively.[iv]  Quite simply, refugee children are not going to school as often as other children in their own age groups.

This lack of educational access is especially pronounced in certain areas of high refugee density.  Primary school GERs range from 46% across much of Africa to 90% in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  At the secondary level, regional variation in camp settings is stark, with school participation at only 20% in Eastern Africa and at 86% in Western Africa.[v]   These children, then, have a low chance of acquiring a suitable education that will prepare them for life after they leave the camps.

Conditions in refugee camps are often severe.  Kenya’s refugee camps, for example, are overflowing with those continuing to cross from Somalia, hopeful of escaping that country’s ongoing instability, coupled now with the worst drought in 60 years.  The Dadaab camp, designed for 90,000, is forced to accommodate nearly five times that number.[vi]  The lack of resources does more than compromise nutrition, health and safety.  In such places there is no such thing as ‘social mobility.’  Children in these camps – especially those without parents – will likely grow up there and emerge, if they ever do, without adequate skills to assimilate into a broader society. 

The plight of IDPs – those whose flight does not take them across national borders but keeps them displaced within their home countries – is no better.  Globally, levels of IDPs appear to be growing.   An estimated 3.5 million people were newly displaced within the borders of their countries in 2011, 20% more than in 2010.[vii]   Regions of the world characterized by conflict and displacement have relatively high fertility rates and young populations, so women and children constitute around 80% of IDP populations.[viii]  

More than 33% of all IDPs remain beyond the reach of UN assistance which cannot penetrate into ongoing war zones where many remain clustered. [ix]  Surveys conducted by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children found that in just ten countries with conflict-induced displacement, 27 million children had no access to formal schooling.   More than 90% of these were IDPs.   The quality of education in IDP camps is generally much lower than the education provided in refugee camps.[x]  Because IDPs are displaced within their home countries that are experiencing warfare or civil violence, it is much more difficult for assistance agencies to reach them.

In Africa’s newest country, South Sudan, whose identity was forged after decades of conflict, internally displaced children die every day from preventable diseases such as diarrhea and malaria.  At Jamam, just inside the border with Sudan, IDPs are crowded into a camp beset by heavy rains and overflowing latrines.  Land mines in the area prevent them from moving to higher ground to avoid the flooding.  A constant influx of new IDPs stretches already thin resources and makes relocation impossible.   As a result, unaccompanied children, some as young as seven, are fleeing on their own, [xi] reminiscent of the Lost Boys exodus[1] of the 1990s. They face uncertain futures with no support, no education, and no skills.  Of those who remain in the camp, on average three children die every day from simple diseases whose treatments and preventions have not yet reached them, a death rate twice what Doctors Without Borders’ considers to be expected in emergency situations.[xii]


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[1] The ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ refers to more than 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced during the Sudanese Civil War between 1983 and 2005.   Most fled the region for other parts of Africa, Europe or the United States.
[i] http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html
[ii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/04/22/syrias-lost-generation-might-be-largest-displacement-since-wwii/
[iii] UNHCR. Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge UNHCR Global Trends 2012, p. 3. UNHCR. Geneva: UNHCR.
[iv] Dryden-Peterson, S. (2011). Refugee Education: A Global Review. University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Geneva: UNHCR. 24.
[v] Dryden-Peterson, S. (2011). Refugee Education: A Global Review. University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Geneva: UNHCR. 26
[vi] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Misery Follows as Somalis Try to Flee Hunger,” New York Times, July 15, 2011.
[vii] UNHCR. (2011). UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2011. 9. Retrieved October 26, 2013, from UNHCR: http://www.unhcr.org/516285b89.html
[viii] UNHCR. (2011). UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2011. 9. Retrieved October 26, 2013, from UNHCR: http://www.unhcr.org/516285b89.html
[ix] Buscher, D., & Makinson, C. (2008). FMR/Brookings-Bern Special Issue: Protection of IDP women, children and youth. Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Washington: Women's Comission for Refugee Women and Children. 15.
[x] Buscher, D., & Makinson, C. (2008). FMR/Brookings-Bern Special Issue: Protection of IDP women, children and youth. Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Washington: Women's Comission for Refugee Women and Children. 15.
[xi]  Jeffrey Gettleman, “Refugee Children Dying at Alarming Rate in South Sudan, Aid Groups Say,” New York Times, July 6, 2012; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/07/world/africa/refugee-children-dying-at-alarming-rate-in-south-sudan-aid-groups-say.html
[xii] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Refugee Children Dying at Alarming Rate in South Sudan, Aid Groups Say,” New York Times, July 6, 2012; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/07/world/africa/refugee-children-dying-at-alarming-rate-in-south-sudan-aid-groups-say.html