Universal Children’s Day: Giving Refugee Children a New "Normal"

Today is Universal Children’s Day, celebrated November 20 to mark the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child over a quarter century ago. It’s a day to recognize children’s rights and to shed light on the progress made in securing such rights while not forgetting the challenges and disparities that persist. In last year’s State ofthe World’s Children issued by UNICEF (there should be a new one soon), it highlighted some persistent realities:  
  • Almost half of children under 5 in the poorest countries do not have the right to an official identity; 
  • The poorest 20% of the world’s children are twice as likely as the world’s richest 20% to be stunted by growth;
  • Children in 4 out of 10 households in the world’s poorest countries do not attend primary school;
  • Girls still have less access to quality education than boys in the world’s poorest nations;
  • Children going to school in the world’s poorest nations have inadequate access to toilets (both at school and at home);
One of the encouraging aspects of the report is that it highlights stories – of inspiration, innovation, care and dedication – on how to fulfill children’s rights. The stories focus on things that make sense: engaging youth, sparking creativity, working with communities, and reaching all children, among others. Reading the report, I came across something UNICEF refers to as their “Innovation Map”  – examples from around the world of successful projects. To take but one example, a project in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan(established in 2012 and currently hosting about 80,000 Syrian refugees) aims to solve the problem of girls and women unable to access the female toilets in the camp because there was no lighting. Channeling electricity to the toilets was not possible due to vandalism, so solar panels were installed above the toilets to provide the electricity for proper lighting.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
It’s a small innovation, but a necessary one. Just for a moment imagine what life is like in a refugee camp. In the case of Zaatari, the number of toilets available means that an average of 51 people share one toilet. The average person reading this blog probably shares a toilet with less than a tenth that number.
Crappy toilet statistics are only one aspect of living in a refugee camp that makes life harsh. Each refugee has 35 litres of water per day (the average consumption for Canadians was a whopping 251 litres per day in 2011). Just over half of the 28,000 school-aged children are enrolled in one of three schools operating on double-shifts. Two field hospitals have 55 beds in total (remember, there are 80,000 people living there, with 80 births per week). To put it simply, life in a refugee camp sucks. The connotation of “camp” implies a temporary condition, an in-between living arrangement from what used to be your home to a place where you don’t have to worry about being killed on a daily basis. The reality of such camps is quite different: a sense of permanence settles in, a sense of despair, and a sense of normality. I’m reminded of a TED Talk by George Takei in which he discusses his time as a child in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War: “Children are amazingly adaptable. What would be grotesquely abnormal became my normality in the prisoner of war camps.It became routine for me to line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. It became normal for me to go with my father to bathe in a mass shower.Being in a prison, a barbed-wire prison camp, became my normality.
As adaptable children are, they shouldn’t have to consider life in a camp as “normal.” There are nearly 50,000 children living in Zaatari camp now. However miserable life is in that camp, conditions in other camps, not to mention the unimaginable struggles Syrian refugees have faced crossing into Europe, can be even worse.
The sheer number of Syrian refugees is astounding. In total, Jordan currently has over 630,000 refugees; overall the number of registered Syrian refugees is nearly 4.3 million. A quarter of them – more than one million – are children. When I try to get my head around such numbers and weigh the reality of refugees’ lives with the ongoing debate of closing our borders to them, I find it very difficult to accept any argument – founded in ignorance, fear, xenophobia or racism, but often a mix of all these things – that supports measures to ignore their pleas and maintain their suffering.
Canada’s new government made a promise to welcome 25,000 refugees by the end of this year and is currently in the process of making sure this happens. Under normal circumstances, it’s an ambitious target, and recent terrorist attacks in Paris (and Beirut, and now Mali) have prompted some to put into question the need to adhere to the deadline of December 31 or even to admit refugees at all. To me, the date is not relevant; moving refugees out of misery is, and whether or not it takes two months or a little longer shouldn’t be a benchmark for success. The government’s approach is a sound one, since it focuses on refugees already registered in camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The least Canadians can do is extend a warm welcome to those in need, and give a new place for thousands of refugees to call their home. It’s time to give refugees another option of what “normal” can be.

Find out how to help: The CBC Montreal website recently published a useful post on how Quebecers can help

Update November 23: I referred to the government’s plan as a “sound one” – now that the government has indicated it will not allow unaccompanied men into Canada, it’s not looking sound, nor is it fair. Tom Mulcair summed it up well by saying: “While security concerns remain of vital importance, will a young man who lost both parents be excluded from Canada’s refugee program?” He added, “Will a gay man who is escaping persecution be excluded? Will a widower who is fleeing [ISIS] after having seen his family killed be excluded?” A proper security screening is important for any refugee, regardless of their status as accompanied or not, and regardless of their sex. It is, as many have noted, very uncanadian.

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