Today is Universal Children’s Day. The event is used as a platform to raise awareness about the various forms of abuse and discrimination that children experience. Many refugee children, like their adult counterparts, are forced to flee their countries of origin due to armed conflict, social strife, poverty, political turmoil, environmental factors, and economic hardships.
In Uganda, most, if not all refugee children, come from conflict-ridden areas in the Great Lakes region. Before and during flight, many of them are exposed to various forms of human rights abuse that negatively impact their physical, social and psychological well-being, leaving them with various forms of trauma.
While a number of them flee with their parents or guardians, there is a more vulnerable category of unaccompanied minors and separated children that lose any contact with family or people known to them during flight. Refugees – children or adults – flee their countries in pursuit of peace and a stable environment, where their rights are recognised and respected. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for many of them.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has more than 420,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered under its mandate in Uganda, with more than 60,000 of those estimated to live in urban areas. With the enactment of the Refugee Act 2006, recognised refugees were granted freedom of movement in Uganda, thus giving them the right to settle in any part of the country.
Many of these settle in mostly the slum areas in and around Kampala and live among us. However, refugees are not a homogenous group, as we have a few of them living relatively well in upscale areas in Kampala. Regardless of which part of town they live in; they are at risk of abuse, especially the children. Uganda’s progressive refugee policies and laws allow refugee children to enjoy all the rights that Ugandan children enjoy.
However, research and experience show that refugee children are abused and discriminated against. They are subjected to various forms of physical abuse by local residents. They are blamed for almost everything that goes wrong in the neighbourhoods. Shifting location is barely a solution for many of them as they lack the resources to do so. They also experience discrimination, even at school among their peers. They are targets of gender-based violence, especially the girls.
Unfortunately, they face many legal obstacles that hinder access to justice, forcing them to settle for alternative dispute resolutions for offences such as defilement. Children living without parents or guardians are particularly vulnerable because they lack adult protection. All this negatively impacts on the lives of refugee children. Their lives seem like one big unending cycle of violence, making them feel rejected and unloved. If not checked, this could have adverse effects on their adult lives.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been quoted as saying: “The one thing all children have in common is their rights. Every child has the right to survive and thrive, to be educated, to be free from violence and abuse, to participate and to be heard.” There is need, therefore, to give refugee children friendly space to air their concerns, and also make them key players in ending all forms of violence against them. We must raise awareness about the rights of refugee children in their communities and at school, and complaints of violence and discrimination need to be discussed by school authorities to end it.
Uganda has some of the best child protection laws and policies but many people are unaware of them and enforcement is limited. Therefore, all stakeholders need to be educated about the needs and rights of refugee children and particular attention should be given to unaccompanied minors. This will help end the cycle of violence against refugee children.
Ms Kansiime works with Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University. email@example.com