GEDAREF, SUDAN, 1 December – Potentially hundreds of unaccompanied child refugees are arriving in Sudan from Ethiopia, having been separated from their parents. They are at serious risk of exploitation and abuse, warns Save the Children.
So far, 139 children who were separated from their parents or caregivers have been registered at just one of several entry points along the Ethiopia-Sudan border, Save the Children said, so the total number could be far higher. In total at least 43,000 refugees have already crossed the border into Sudan so far.
Save the Children emphasises the urgent need to reunite the children with their parents or legal caregivers and has deployed a specialist to help set up a reunification system.
Arshad Malik, Save the Children’s country director in Sudan, is in Um Rabaka camp, which currently hosts around 10,000 people, including an estimated 4,500 children. He said:
“Unaccompanied children who have fled from their homes are at high risk of trafficking, exploitation and abuse, particularly girls. They need specialist care and protection. Many of these separated children are travelling with their older siblings or extended families, but they need their parents or caregivers, as that’s who they feel safest with. It is vital to reunite them as soon as possible.”
In many cases, people arriving to the camp had to walk for five days to get to safety in the blistering heat with little more than the clothes on their backs, Save the Children said.
Several children turned up in shorts and sandals with bare limbs exposing them to mosquitoes and other insects. Aid workers are concerned about malaria and other parasitic diseases.
Mr Malik also stressed the needs of more vulnerable children and adults, such as disabled people.
“I have seen some people who are clearly disabled, and we worry about their access to services. At present, the camp does not have easy access for people with disabilities.”
To help children recover from their distressing experiences, the organisation has set up two child-friendly spaces where children can play and be themselves again under the supervision of trained staff.
It also deployed a child protection specialist to support family reunifications, and it is setting up temporary learning facilities. In all its work, it will focus on the prevention of violence against girls and women.
Mr Malik continued: “A mother told us how she and her children had to walk for days to get to safety. Like many other refugees, they haven’t been able to wash for several days. The children were very tired when they arrived and had little food – the journey had taken a heavy toll on them and I could see they were frustrated. The children went wild with relief in the child-friendly space, blowing off steam and playing.”
Um Rabaka camp is the largest refugee camp for people who have fled the recent escalation in Ethiopia. It is set up for 5,000 people but is already hosting twice that number. The UN is projecting that 200,000 people in total could cross the border in the coming months, urgently increasing the need for international support.
Mr Malik said: “There is a desperate need for child protection, shelter, clean water, and healthcare. The UN and aid organisations are doing everything they can, but the need is just too high. The overcrowding of the camp means that if COVID-19 were to get in, it could spread like wildfire. We desperately need support to ensure the camp can maintain a hygienic, clean, and socially distanced environment, while preparing for more refugees.
“Luckily there is enough food for now, as that is being distributed and the Sudanese host community has been very welcoming. But some parents are complaining that their children have trouble digesting the food they receive as it’s different to the Ethiopian injera – that they are constantly being sick.”
Along with setting up the child-friendly spaces, Save the Children is supporting the training of social workers, supporting family reunification and referral services, and has developed a safe space for women and children.
Save the Children is also working with the authorities and other actors to coordinate the education of newly arrived children. Mr Malik said: “many children are used to a completely different language and education system to the one in Sudan. But 45% of these refugees are children, and it is vital that they have access to education.”
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