‘Refugee children are at risk’

Published on Feb 08 2008 // Interview

Roz Evans completed an MSc in Forced Migration at the Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre in 2005 and is currently doing her PhD in Development Studies at Oxford University. She is researching the impact of child-focused participatory projects on Bhutanese refugee children living in camps in Nepal. Roz has just completed her research fieldwork in Nepal, which she carried out between September 2006 and January 2008.

Roz worked with refugees as a legal adviser in Egypt and as an English teacher and project worker with young refugees in Lebanon and the UK. In 2004, she co-founded Refugee Youth Project, a UK-based voluntary organisation that works with community-based partners to provide support and activities for young refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. The projects aims to encourage refugee youth participation in project planning, implementation and evaluation. The project worked with young Bhutanese refugee to find out their problems in camps where young refugee themselves were involved. Before leaving Nepal, Roz talked with Indra Adhikari of Nepalnews about the findings of her research in Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal.

How do you find the current status of Bhutanese refugee children?
There are 109,311 registered Bhutanese refugees in Nepal (RCU November 2007). Of this total population, there are 37,241 children according to Bhutan Refugee Children Forum (as of December 2006). Following the census carried out by the UNHCR and Nepal government in 2006 and 2007, UNHCR has identified a total of 698 children at risk. Children at risk are those who have been separated from their parents and/or who are living unaccompanied by any adult relative. In Khudunabari camp, 105 children have been identified living without both parents. In Beldangi camp, 419 children have been identified living in single parent families. In Sanishare camp, we explored the situation of the 180 disabled children. There is a 1– 2 percent school drop out rate.

What are the major problems the refugee children are facing, according to you?
Bhutanese refugee children face a number of problems, many of which are experienced by the whole community. These include economic difficulties, (which affect children's ability to study beyond grade 10), lack of citizenship, and the current political tensions and insecurity in the camps. However, our research revealed that some children live especially in difficult situations. These include children living without their parents, in single parent families and with elderly and/or disabled parents. Children living in these circumstances are compelled to take on greater household management responsibilities, including the burden of domestic and income-generating work.

What do refugee children think of their future?
There are a range of opinions amongst children on their futures and on durable solutions. Some children express their interest in moving to third countries where they hope they will have a better future, with more rights, citizenship and access to good educational opportunities. However, other children, even those who have been born in the refugee camps, explain that they wish to return to Bhutan and are not interested in other solutions.

Has the increasing conflict in refugee camps affected the psychology of these children?
Increasing conflict in the refugee camps affects the whole community, including children. Some children have experienced attacks on their homes and families, during which they observed masked assailants beating their older relatives, listened to people threatening to kill their parents and watched their huts destroyed. Other children have taken part in violent activities, including attacking other refugee community members with different views on durable solutions. Children in the camps are aware that they are living in a situation of political insecurity and have taken steps to protect themselves and their families from harm. This includes, for example, lying about their feelings on durable solutions as many of them perceive it to be dangerous to admit to their friends and/or neighbours that they are interested in resettlement.

Did you find out any lapses on part of the donor agencies in meeting the needs of the refugee children?
At the moment, there is a lack of support for those refugees who have been forced by threats and violence to live outside the camps, which includes children. Aside from families' difficulties in covering the cost of rent and food, many displaced children are unable to attend school due to money crunches. After the census carried out, UNHCR has been able to provide more targeted assistance to vulnerable children and those categorised as being at risk. UNHCR staff responded positively to the children's research and we hope to continue working in co-operation to improve child protection in the camps. The Bhutanese Refugee Children Forum who implemented this research project is also working hard to identify and respond to child rights and protection problems. Caritas implements a good educational system under huge constraints, such as funding problems and difficulties in retaining teachers who can earn more money going outside the camps for work. However, there are some discipline problems, largely attributed by teachers to frustration amongst students since they have stayed in the camps so long.