Challenges Facing Refugee Children: Where Does the United States Stand?

Challenges Facing Refugee Children: Where Does the United States Stand?
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A year ago at this time, the United States and 192 other countries launched new initiatives at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to help refugees. The New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, adopted by all world leaders, and commitments made by 52 countries and organizations at the Leaders’ Summit hosted by the United States, Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden focused international attention on the immense suffering of over 22 million refugees, half of whom are children.

As leaders reconvene in New York for this year’s UNGA, the number of refugees has grown since last year, even as another, escalating crisis is displacing people and has put over 20 million people in Africa and Yemen at risk of famine. So where does U.S. policy stand? What will President Trump say about this in his speech to world leaders this Tuesday?

Save the Children’s just-released Refugee Children’s Progress Report analyzed and evaluated U.S. policy on refugee children from 2015-2017 in terms of four priorities identified as critical by those children and families: education, protection, food security and safe homes. Grades ranged from A- to D.

The United States has long been a leader on refugee issues, as outlined in our report, but the new Administration is sending contradictory messages about its stance on helping refugees overseas and has taken a negative stance on resettlement. If America does not build on its overall positive record, that will cast a shadow across the international scene and could unleash a downward spiral that would be devastating for refugee children and families.

Take education as an example in which a number of developments over the past several years have begun to move the dial for refugee children, something we have worked hard to achieve. In recent years, U.S. leadership on refugee education has encouraged other countries to make positive commitments and changes of their own. The 2016 Leaders’ Summit, a U.S. initiative, resulted in commitments to enhance educational access for 1 million refugee children. At the World Humanitarian Summit, the U.S. pledge of $20 million to the newly established Education Cannot Wait fund helped mobilize in total $93 million for refugee education. The new Administration, however, has not signaled its intentions on Education Can’t Wait.

In today’s world, there are 33 protracted refugee crises that average more than 25 years, so refugee children are being robbed not only of their childhood, but also of their entire education, which is a building block for successful adulthood. Young refugees are 5 times more likely to be out of school than other children; more than half of school-aged refugee children, over 3.5 million, are not getting an education. That leaves them vulnerable to child marriage, child labor, recruitment into armed groups, or other forms of exploitation. Failure to close this gaping education gap risks creating lost generations of youth who will not be able to participate productively in rebuilding their countries or even worse.

The progress on the refugee agenda we began to see in 2016 must be sustained and accelerated, as the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes continues to increase. This is urgent. In the area of education, for example, where world leaders committed to ensure all refugee children return to education “within a few months,” we calculate that the world’s out-of-school refugee children have already lost out on over 700 million school days.

Getting US leadership back on track requires a robust Migration and Refugee Assistance Account. This would look much more along the lines of recent Senate action on FY 18 appropriations than the budget proposed by the Administration. Additionally, with the suspension of the U.S. resettlement program, we estimate that the number of children who will receive safe, permanent homes in the United States this year will be cut by over 50 percent to 17,000. This too must be reversed. President Reagan, for example, recognized the important contributions of refugees to our values and national security by setting refugees admission ceilings considerably higher than they are today.

A year from now, we hope to look back and see more robust U.S. actions that will merit improved grades in our refugee children’s progress index. We thus look forward to what President Trump will say at UNGA this week and the role the United States will play in developing the 2018 global compact on refugees. Another true test will be Congressional action to ensure the United States has the capability to be a leader in supporting refugees in hosting countries neighboring crises and resettlement. America must step up to the global displacement challenge; lives are on the line.

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