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Joint Statement on the Evacuation of Unaccompanied Children from Rwanda

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Author International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef); International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation)
Publication Date 27 June 1994
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Joint Statement on the Evacuation of Unaccompanied Children from Rwanda, 27 June 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b31ef.html [accessed 25 April 2014]

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef),
and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation)

Joint Statement on the Evacuation of Unaccompanied Children from Rwanda

1. INTRODUCTION

The massacres which are being committed in Rwanda and the direct consequences of the war have affected thousands of children who have been without effective protection in their country. There have been evacuations of threatened children to countries outside Rwanda. Often these evacuations have been essential to save children's lives.

These evacuations are organized in situations of acute danger for both the children and those seeking to help them. Due to the imminent threat to life, procedures normally applied cannot always be respected. Nevertheless, every effort should be made to ensure the survival and protection of children, meet the needs of unaccompanied children and trace their families. Keeping children with their families or in the care of relatives is normally the best way to meet their needs.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child should apply in all circumstances. In the situation prevailing today in Rwanda, the best interests of the child and the child's inherent right to life - fundamental principles of the Convention - often require a transfer of children to a safe place as quickly as possible to ensure their survival.

Since numerous evacuations of children to other countries have taken place, we believe it is essential that the major principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and of International Humanitarian Law (the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977) are recalled whenever such evacuations are being contemplated. These principles are summarized in the UNHCR/UNICEF booklet, "Evacuation of Children from Conflict Areas" of 1992. If copies are not available, please contact the nearest office of UNHCR, UNICEF, ICRC or the International Federation.

The purpose of this statement is not to delay life-saving evacuations, but to stress the importance of family unity and keeping records of all evacuated children who are separated from their parents or their family members and to highlight important factors to be taken into account regarding the destination and the care of children following evacuation.

2. GUIDING CONSIDERATIONS

Unaccompanied children are those who are separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so. The children should not be described as "orphans", but as "unaccompanied children". It cannot be assumed that unaccompanied children in Rwanda and in the refugee camps are orphans. The status of being an orphan always requires careful verification since the term "orphan" is sometimes used in the region for children who have lost one parent. Even though some children have come from orphanages in Rwanda, past experiences in similar situations have shown that many, if not most, alleged orphans have living parents. Some parents may have entrusted their children to an orphanage as a security measure or to ensure adequate provision of food and shelter.

In the present circumstances in Rwanda it is often impossible to obtain reliable information about the fate of separated family members. Until tracing of relatives is possible, it must be assumed that an unaccompanied child may have close living relatives still in Rwanda or in neighbouring countries. It should be noted that the concept of family is much larger in Central Africa than in the industrialized countries.

Unfortunately, active tracing to find remaining relatives of the children is at the moment extremely difficult both in Rwanda and bordering countries. As soon as the situation permits, tracing will be initiated to reunite separated children with their family members.

Evacuation, reception and care should be planned with a view to the earliest possible reunification between children and their relatives. It must be clearly explained to guardians or foster parents that the objective is to return the child to his or her family as soon as the situation permits. Evacuation of children to neighbouring countries should be explored before consideration is given to taking them to third countries. Evacuations from a neighbouring country to a third country should not be undertaken unless the children face security risks or no suitable care is available. The best interests of the child must be the paramount consideration in the choice of destination as well as in arrangements for care.

Children in an emergency context are not available for adoption. Since most unaccompanied children are not orphans, what they need is suitable interim care with a view to possible reunification with their families, not adoption. Staying with relatives in extended family units is a better solution than uprooting the child completely. Serious efforts to trace family members are essential before a child is considered eligible for adoption, and these are impossible in an emergency. Adoption should not be considered unless a reasonable time (normally at least two years) has passed during which all feasible steps to trace the parents or other surviving family members have been taken.

3. REGISTRATION

Whether or not registration has been possible prior to the emergency evacuation of the child, a full registration and documentation must be carried out immediately after the child has reached a safe place. For each unaccompanied child, personal and family particulars, with photographs, preferably in black and white, must be recorded in a personal file. (See attached ICRC initial registration form. More detailed documentation forms are available from UNHCR, UNICEF, ICRC and the International Federation.) This file should also include full particulars of the agency and persons to whom the child is entrusted.

a.         One copy should stay with the child.

b.         One copy should remain with the agency to which the child is entrusted.

c.         The original of the file must be sent to the Central Tracing Agency of the ICRC in Geneva or any ICRC delegation for centralization of the data and with the aim of facilitating tracing and family reunification later on. This information will be made available for this purpose to the family members and relevant agencies in Rwanda and in any concerned countries by the ICRC according to its standard procedures.

4. CONCLUSION

Families and traditional care-takers of evacuated children are worried about the fate of their children. The systematic registration of unaccompanied children evacuated in emergency conditions makes it possible to keep track of them, inform the concerned persons accordingly and facilitate family reunification.

All countries offering their facilities to care for the separated children shall ensure that the procedures described in the Joint Statement and in the UNHCR/UNICEF booklet "Evacuation of Children from Conflict Areas" of 1992 are followed in all cases.

ICRC, UNHCR, UNICEF and the International Federation, together with other humanitarian agencies, will continue to do their utmost to improve protection, medical and social conditions locally and in the region, so that the safety and the welfare of children can be ensured within their own families and communities.

27 June 1994, Geneva

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