NEW DELHI/AMMAN – Taima’a al-Hariri, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, had been regularly attending school before the Jordanian authorities introduced a necessary lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“When the coronavirus appeared, they shut down all the classrooms and we didn’t have teachers we could interact with anymore,” Taima’a says. “I was starting to do charity work with [refugee] children with cancer, but that was put on hold.”
Although the pandemic has affected children and young people around the world, refugees like Taima’a have been especially hard hit. These children have long suffered multiple deprivations: they were forced to flee wars and emergencies, sometimes without family, and are struggling to survive with no familiar comforts. And now COVID-19 is exacerbating their hardships.
Even before the pandemic, only half of the world’s refugee children of primary-school age were receiving formal education, and only 22% of children of lower-secondary-school age were. Moreover, children living in extreme poverty – including refugees – are vulnerable to forced labor and trafficking, putting them at further risk of being out of school.
Lack of access to formal education is just one of many challenges that refugees face. Health care and sanitation – critical to protecting large refugee populations living in camps – were already inadequate before COVID-19 struck. And with parents now less able to put food on the table for their children, starvation is a far greater threat than the pandemic itself, as recent warnings and budget cuts by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization have made clear.
Today, 80% of refugees live in countries that are not equipped to support them. Turkey is home to 3.7 million refugees, while Uganda, Pakistan, and Sudan together host almost four million. Jordan and Lebanon have long been home to refugees, who account for almost one-third of each country’s population. Because over half of the world’s 26 million refugees are children – some 300,000 of whom are unaccompanied – defending their rights is a vast challenge.
We are working on the ground with youth activists from the 100 Million campaign for children’s rights, who are continuing their efforts despite COVID-19. They include Seme Ludanga Faustino, a South Sudanese refugee who in 2017 co-founded the youth-led organization I CAN South Sudan in the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, home to the world’s biggest concentration of unaccompanied minors. Faustino’s organization, which was set up to use the arts to provide trauma relief to unaccompanied children, has shifted to distributing soap and conducting home visits to teach them how to keep themselves safe from the coronavirus…