Mr. Ruud Lubbers
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

to the UN Special Session of the General Assembly on Children
New York, 8 May 2002


Mr. President,
Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Almost half of the 21 million people of concern to my Office are children under the age of 18. These children deserve special attention. They are often exposed to armed conflict and lack of access to food, water, shelter and basic health care. They are often separated from their families during flight; they are sometimes subjected to sexual abuse and violence; they are vulnerable to manipulation and forced military recruitment and they are often exposed to HIV/AIDS. Their education is often disrupted at a crucial stage in their development.

I have had the opportunity to meet many refugee children. They all had a few overarching dreams in common: enough food and other basic assistance; a secure environment; reunification with their families; access to education, sports and help to become self-reliant through skills training.

Mr. President,

Refugee children are often separated from their parents during flight. They often find themselves having to look after younger siblings all by themselves. Tracing and family reunification of unaccompanied and separated children has been a continuous priority activity for UNHCR. We work closely on this with the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF and other partners.

One positive example is in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, where close inter-agency collaboration resulted in the reunification of some 62,000 Rwandan children between 1994 and 1998. But much work needs to be done to address the needs of unaccompanied and separated children. A renewed commitment from countries around the world is needed, to ensure that children have access to asylum procedures and that they are assisted by legal representatives.

Protection against detention needs to be addressed, as thousands of unaccompanied children find themselves detained in facilities alongside common criminals.

Mr. President,

Another issue is the vulnerability of refugee children to violence, exploitation and abuse. In most refugee and returnee situations, children are more at risk given their age and vulnerable circumstances. Preventive measures must be taken to address these issues, including improving camp layout and food distribution systems to ensure that refugee children - and also women - are protected. UNHCR is currently working with the entire UN system and NGOs on these issues.

In addition, it is vital to monitor compliance and ensure accountability of those who violate these fundamental rights. Together with the Secretary-General, I am committed to a zero tolerance olic against sexual exploitation, abuse, and violence. One case is one too many.

We have a collective responsibility to address the underlying root causes that increase the susceptibility of refugee children to abuse. In seemingly hopeless environments, the poor and the dispossessed are often forced to resort to desperate measures to survive.

Education provides a positive alternative to drugs, to crime, to military recruitment and to other forms of exploitation and abuse. Ensuring that refugee children have access to education, including post-primary education and skills training for adolescents. The Refugee Education Trust, aims to address the funding gap for education at the post-primary level.

Mr. President,

On a more positive note, I would like to draw your attention to three innovative partnerships that UNHCR has entered to enhance positive developmental activities. The first is with Angelina Jolie, a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, and who continues to show solidarity refugee children. The second is with Olympic Aid's Johan Koss, sports projects are now implemented in some thirty refugee camps on five continents. These projects provide opportunities for children to make friends, to overcome the idleness which is often part of life in a refugee camp, and to build tolerance and understanding. The third with Jane Goodall, working with UNHCR to extend her Institute's "Roots and Shoots" programme to refugee settings. This programme provides young refugees with the possibilities to participate in taking care of the community and the environment, and linking them up with more privileged children in similar "Roots and Shoots" groups.

Children are our mirror to the future. However, if all they know is deprivation, violence and exploitation, it is unlikely that they will contribute to the development of stable, just and productive societies in the future. If, we are able to ensure that they live in environments where they are physically and economically secure, where they are not at risk of being exploited, and where they have access to health care, education and other opportunities, they become valuable citizens of our world.

Thank you.