In 2021 alone, an estimated 89.3 million people were forcibly displaced across the world. More than a third of this total were refugees; a staggering 36.5 million were children. In effect, despite being a minority of the global population, children made up over 40% of the total refugee population in 2021. For many children, the reality of being a refugee is all they may have ever known. From 2018 to 2021, approximately 1.5 million children were born as a refugee. In Thailand, at least 300,000 individuals are child migrants who often lack the proper documentation. A significant portion of the country’s refugee population is ethnic minorities from Myanmar who live in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border after having fled due to ethnic conflict.
What Are Refugees?
According to Article 1 of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, refugees are individuals who flee their country due to being “persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality.” As such, the refugees may not be provided protection by their own country, therefore preventing them from returning in fear of their safety. Other than persecution on the basis of race or religion, numerous refugees flee in times of war or “political violence” as well.
What are the Impacts of Becoming a Refugee?
The sudden transition in the environment and living conditions of refugees comes with a host of challenges. Although many seek shelter in refugee camps, they often lack access to basic necessities and safe shelter. For instance, the water in Thai refugee camps has been found to be contaminated, resulting in instances of cholera and malaria. The scarcity of resources in these camps has also led to children suffering from “chronic malnutrition and respiratory infections.” Aside from health concerns, these camps lack the infrastructure, such as electricity, which is needed for people to live comfortably. This is exacerbated by the fact that refugees have a higher chance of living in extreme poverty, thereby restricting their ability to access basic necessities.
Security is another main concern for refugees but particularly for children. A UN report found that in 2005, more than half of reported rapes at refugee camps, both committed and attempted, targetted children as young as five years old. Reaching out for legal help, however, is not always an option for refugees. For many, their lack of documentation makes them more susceptible to being prosecuted by authorities of the host country. Although the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol recognize and affirm the rights of refugees, Thailand did not sign it. Consequently, refugees in Thailand are not offered any form of legal protection. Children who are born as refugees further lack protection under the law; because they are born in camps, child refugees are not issued birth certificates which renders them stateless.
It is also important to note the impact that being a refugee has on the mental health of child refugees. These circumstances are detrimental to children’s development and subject them to prolonged trauma. Studies have found that children’s anxiety rates rise by 20% after arriving at shelters. Their trauma is aggravated when they are separated from their family or if children witness their parents being tortured. Other times, the trauma experienced by the children’s parents or caregivers may ultimately be projected onto them, resulting in the “transgenerational transmission of trauma.” With these factors combined, child refugees are left in an alarmingly vulnerable state, putting them at greater risk of resorting to harmful behaviors like drug abuse.
How Can We Address These Issues?
At the Center For Girls Foundation (CFGF), children’s security is a top priority. By conducting several workshops that raise awareness of children’s rights, we have helped advance child protection efforts in local communities in Northern Thailand.
On the national level, however, more has to be done for the protection of child refugees. Adequate facilities and resources such as clean water and nutritional food must be made available to those in refugee camps. Moreover, the security of these camps must be reinforced to ensure that its inhabitants, particularly children, are not exploited or put in harm’s way. Officials and volunteers who help manage these camps could be trained to identify signs of abuse in children, along with equipping them with resources to address possible incidents of abuse. Refugees are already in a vulnerable state as is and their undocumented status only serves as another obstacle. With this in mind, legal support must be accessible to refugees without fear of further prosecution by the government.
– Isabelle Amurao
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