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Beasts of burden: Unaccompanied refugee children biting more than they can swallow

By Francis Okot Oyat (Published on 13th September 2017)

In many African countries confronted with escalating conflict, protection issues of children remain a major challenge. UNHCR says children make up to 62% of the 1.8 million people displaced by fighting in South Sudan, and more than 75,000 unaccompanied minors have fled to Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. (Sudan Tribune, 18th May 2017).  In conflict situations children are exposed to a wide range of abuses, including defilement, abduction and forceful recruitment into military forces or groups, sexual slavery and exploitation leading to early pregnancy and early parenthood, brutal murder of adults creating unaccompanied and orphaned children, torture and physical brutality, and forceful displacement. Refugee children with limited physical and psychological capacity to support themselves continue to add to the numbers of those who lose their lives in preventable circumstances. 

According to UNHCR, Uganda is registering an average of 100+ unaccompanied minors and separated children daily as it continues to grapples with the growing influx of South Sudanese refugees. The number of separated children and unaccompanied minors registered since July 2016 has shot to over 9,000. According to an analysis of World Vision’s best interest determination assessment forms, a total of 6,057 unaccompanied minors and separated children have been registered in Bidibidi settlement, while 3,098 have been registered at Imvepi refugee settlement since July 2016. (New Vision, 19th May 2017) While all these children are placed into foster care, they only account for unaccompanied children in the settlements in northern and west Nile region, not those in other parts of the country such as Kiryandongo and Kampala. 

The circumstances of refugee life force many refugee children into adult lifestyles. Many households are child-headed either because their parents were killed during conflict in their country of origin or were separated during flight. Children run homes and plan for the basics in a family where they should have been the ones being looked after. They must work for their livelihood because in the urban areas structured humanitarian assistance is very limited. In the process they are over-worked without proper pay. Sexual exploitation and abuse are also happening, and sometimes the people who use them never pay them at all. Despite the different forms of exploitation unaccompanied refugees children go through, many of them I have interacted with prefer to work or fend for themselves and their siblings rather than living in foster care. As a matter of fact, I have come across one particular unaccompanied minor who run away from his foster family and has since been living on his own. 

Those in foster homes are usually forced to carry the whole burden of household chores without rest. They must fetch water, cook food, wash clothes, utensils and clean the house while the host parents’ children are not doing any work at all. They are thus denied the rights to play and rest that should accrue to every child. Sometimes they get sexually abused by family members who feel that these children owe them for being alive. Foster children are at times denied food and  also not given the opportunity to go to school despite the fact that Universal Primary Education is supposed to be free, for refugees just as it is for nationals. 

Some foster families do not take in children because they want to help the child but rather because of the assistance their families would probably get due to the presence of such children in their families. 

Many under-aged refugee girls have been forced into marriages for the benefit of the foster families. They are considered a source of income for guardians who lose nothing by forcing them into these marriages. These girls then get trapped in abusive relationships because return to the foster family is not possible. However, they at times remain in an abusive relationship simply because it gives them food and a roof over their heads, and therefore some security for them and their siblings. From my own experience some unaccompanied refugee girls lie about their age or simply do not disclose the identity of their partner in order to protect their partner from being persecuted for defilement. 

Unaccompanied refugee children are also prone to commercial sexual exploitation at the hands of their caregivers/foster parents/guardians. As one of the worst forms of child labor, the exact numbers of refugee children who are sexually exploited is not known owing to the hidden nature of the practice. This comes with severe consequences such as psycho-social problems, early pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), school dropout, drug and alcohol abuse all of which lead to loss of their childhood. 

From our own experiences at Refugee Law Project, most unaccompanied refugee children who are trapped in commercial sexual exploitation only come to report when they need medical interventions for complications resulting from sexual violence. It has also been noted that many of these children do not actually get the opportunity to report to any authority since they are closely monitored and their movements restricted. 

Since the majority of work done by refugees is informal, it is largely unregulated and thus beyond the effective reach of any legal protection. The nature of young refugees’ work behind closed doors and outside any regulatory regime, their lack of legal protection in the country, and the lack of adult relatives to protect them or seek retribution for abuse makes unaccompanied young refugee domestic workers highly vulnerable to labor exploitation, physical and sexual violence. Despite this exploitation, they continue to work as that is the only way they can make ends meet as one of them narrated; 

“What can we do? You work hard, and those you work for give you the amount of money they feel like even though you had agreed on the amount. You cannot report as finding another job is not possible”

Refugee children, especially unaccompanied minors, can easily be described as beasts of burden because of the circumstances elaborated above. There is therefore an urgent need to reflect on how best to mainstream challenges faced by refugee children into structured assistance strategies so that children, as stipulated in the Constitution of this country and in the Refugees Act have the right to live protected, meaningful and dignified lives as they deserve.

We need to intensify our monitoring processes of foster families through impromptu home visits and making sure that we provide safe spaces to speak with the children without any interference from the foster parents. If there is any evidence that points to exploitation, those children should be removed from the families and the support revoked.

 The writer (Francis Okot Oyat) works at Refugee Law Project as a Social Worker under the Mental Health & Psychosocial Wellbeing Programme.

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