Half of the world’s refugees are children and millions of those children are located in the Middle East and North Africa. This disturbing fact was driving force behind the first regional conference dedicated to the protection of refugee children and teens that took place in Sharjah last week.
Under patronage of His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, and by invitation of his wife Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, the event was hosted by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) and the UAE charity The Big Heart Campaign. Entitled Investing in the Future: Protecting Refugee Children in the Middle East and North Africa, the aim of the conference was to highlight the plight of displaced young people and to strengthen systems and partnerships in the region.
More than 300 delegates, including government officials, aid workers and experts in refugee affairs and child protection attended the conference. Among the topics covered were issues of sexual and gender-based violence, exploitation, discrimination and administrative issues such as birth registration and legal documentation, education, rehabilitation and empowering the youth to shape their own future through participation and decision-making.
His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi opened the conference and referred to how millions of people have been forced to abandon their homes for fear of their lives by war caused by “groups who are really forgetting and not abiding by all the Islamic morals and teachings and legislations.” He added: “We have to really work hard to protect and support the innocent refugee children while offering them all kinds of support in education, health and rehabilitate them to become better members of the society.”
Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan gave the keynote address and highlighted the scale of this modern humanitarian crisis, describing it as “a slap in the face of humanity.” She also noted that, “the year 2014 has witnessed the largest human displacement. The number of people who left their homes exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II, and Syria is the most affected.” She called for more support for host countries like her own, where the “the needs are far greater than the support offered.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres reiterated Queen Rania’s points on the scale of the crisis (the UNHCR has registered 3.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt) and highlighted the struggle that host countries are facing – “public infrastructure, schools and hospitals are overcrowded across the region, and high unemployment, shrinking salaries and rising prices leave many members of the host population struggling to make ends meet.” He added that the generosity of Syria’s neighbours needs stronger support by the international community.
Guterres reiterated how the children are suffering the most with only one in two Syrian refugee children receiving an education and many are forced to work to help support their families or are forced into child marriage because their families cannot support them. He said: “The most important way to do this is to listen to them – not only to understand their real needs, but also to engage them as equal partners in finding solutions to keep them safe and protect their rights.”
He added: “We must now allow these children to become a lost generation… because it will be them who hold the keys to the future of their countries, and to peace and prosperity for the entire region.”