Children’s rights for young war refugees

15 June 2022

Media coverage of the war in Ukraine is everywhere. It includes the stories, destinies and traumas of its refugees, many of whom seek shelter with us here in Switzerland. Uprooted from their social and cultural structures and deprived of their livelihoods, refugees arrive in their host countries in a state of acute dependency. As a result, the risk of discrimination or even the criminal exploitation of these victims is indeed tremendous. 


Equal rights for all children

But it is not only from Ukraine that war refugees arrive here: Switzerland continues to receive displaced persons from many other parts of the world, including Afghanistan or Syria, to name only a couple examples of conflict zones. And the contingents of war refugees always include a great many children: in the case of Ukraine, these constitute 40 per cent of the total.  

Children who find refuge here enjoy the same rights as all children in Switzerland. Beyond the accommodations provided under the laws governing asylum and the protection of children, Articles 10, 22 and 38 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in Switzerland in 1997, form the basis for the rights of refugees who have not yet reached the age of majority.


Are you aware of children’s rights?

A first step is to provide for the protection and security of children who find themselves in an extremely vulnerable situation and must be kept safe from abduction as well as physical, psychological and sexual violence. It is also necessary to ensure their right to health, which focusses on evaluating their degree of traumatisation and providing adequate psychological support. But as a society, we too can assist in the healing process of refugees of any age by showing these fellow human beings understanding and patience and not burdening them with our own expectations.

Besides the basic needs of safety and health, it is crucial to restore stability to children who have been uprooted and forced into refugee status by allowing them the opportunity to regain confidence in themselves and their surroundings. The foundation for this can be laid through provision of a home placement with a caring family. At the same time, privacy and one’s own space in the family environment are basic needs that should be safeguarded not only for refugee children but for their hosts as well. To accomplish this, therefore, it is essential to be clear in explanations and information provided to host families. It is a major challenge to welcome a refugee family, one that requires not only financial and psychosocial backing but also professional support for the families.   

Refugee children, like Swiss children, have the right to an education. Of paramount concern here is the swift and straightforward enrolment of the refugee children or, for older minors, the opportunity to complete or continue training. It is important, however, not to overlook children’s right to rest and leisure through their inclusion into existing recreational programs. Children are children, after all, and they need a variety of stimuli if healthy development is to take place. 

Equally important are stable and reliable bonds. This calls for separated families to be reunited as rapidly and unbureaucratically as possible. In the case of Ukrainian war refugees holding S status, the reuniting of families would pose no problem from the Swiss standpoint. In contrast, the obstacles to family reunification are enormous when refugees from elsewhere in the world are temporarily accommodated here. For the sake of the children’s best interests, the goal must be to ease these burdens. 

Lastly and importantly, the children’s right to participate and the right to be heard to make their views known must be protected. Children are autonomous beings, and it is essential that they be able to express themselves in a manner consistent with their age and level of maturity.


War is not solely limited to Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has had a major impact on the Western world’s population at large, which has demonstrated its readiness to help. This can be seen in the prompt and unequivocal acceptance of Ukrainian refugees in all European countries. This solidarity must of course be viewed as entirely positive. At the same time, however, children from other war-torn areas also have the right to non-discrimination, to be accorded the same treatment granted to refugee children from Ukraine. In addition, given the sheer number of applications and the widespread public discussion in the media, the learning curve of Swiss authorities who interact with war refugees is certainly considerable. In this light, the current crisis can also be seen as an opportunity for all future refugees fleeing conflict.


From emergency assistance to long-term support

For the refugee children from Ukraine, the focus currently remains on the basic measures outlined above. But what is to become of these children over the longer term? Will they return to their homeland as soon as a peace treaty is negotiated and the shelling of their cities and villages stops? All Ukrainian refugees, not only the children, have been granted protective status S in Switzerland. This provides them with housing, medical care and social support as well as unrestricted freedom to travel, the right for family members to join them and immediate access to the labour market. It also allows children immediate school enrolment. So far, so good. But the unbureaucratic S protective status is limited to one year and is return-oriented. In other words, it assumes that the refugees will quickly return home following the end of the war. And no funds have been budgeted to facilitate the integration of this group of refugees. 


When does the need for protection lapse?

It remains to be seen whether such a rapid return of refugees to Ukraine will be possible. From a legal standpoint, Switzerland is obligated to provide asylum until the need for protection no longer exists. But how is this to be understood? Will Ukrainians no longer require protection once the war has officially come to an end? This is unlikely. Many essential structures in their country have been and continue to be bombarded and destroyed. With no transportation infrastructure, hospitals, schools or a reliable supply of water, power or telecommunication, the refugees will be unable to go home. And even after this foundation has been rebuilt, the need to protect the youngest among them will persist until their rights as children can be safeguarded in their own country. Sadly, we must expect that it will take years before this condition becomes reality in Ukraine. Beyond the acute assistance currently being provided, there is a longer-term prospect for contact with Ukrainian refugees. The sooner strategies can be developed and actions taken to prepare for this eventuality, the better the situation will be for everyone concerned – especially for the children.