June 9 2016

Helping refugee children and families in the Middle East and North Africa

Conflict and instability have forced millions to flee their homes in the Middle East, with devastating consequences for children and their families. Alia Al Dalli, SOS Children’s Villages' International Director for the Middle East and North Africa Region, says that solutions to restore safety and stability for children are needed urgently, and strong partnerships are key.

Long-running wars in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have put millions of children and families at risk. Millions of people have been forced from their homes, children have lost parents and other family members, and far too many children are unable to access their right to education. According to a report released by UNICEF last year, 13 million children in the region are unable to go to school. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya alone, 9,000 schools have been destroyed or are occupied by displaced civilians or armed groups.

“Many observers are afraid this will be a ‘lost generation’”, says Alia Al Dalli, SOS Children’s Villages’ International Director for the Middle East and North Africa Region. “Another concern is psychological trauma, as children in war situations often face a very unstable environment of displacement, abuse, trafficking, exploitation and other risks.”
A girl at a refugee settlement in Lebanon. Photo: Adel Samara

Girls are also marrying at a much younger age, even in early adolescence, as some parents see marriage as a way of protecting their children and of alleviating economic pressures. A lot of girls do not receive education beyond elementary school. Boys face violence and coercion to join criminal gangs.

To have a chance to succeed in life, children need to be safe and to have access to their rights as children. Above all, “a child needs care, attention, and love,” says Ms Al Dalli.

A focus on children in emergencies

This is where organisations such as SOS Children’s Villages come in – child protection is at the core of SOS Children’s Villages’ work in humanitarian crises. Some aid organisations may focus primarily on providing material aid such as water and food, or shelter and security; SOS Children’s Villages provides support in these areas too, but specialises in the protection of children and support to keep families together during crises. These supports include care for unaccompanied and separated children in Interim Care Centres and SOS villages, Child Friendly Spaces for children and their parents, and psychological and social support. 

Partnerships are essential in emergency responses. In collaboration with other organisations and partners, SOS Children’ Villages supports families with what they need to survive, to stay together and to recover from emergencies. “Working together with the UN and other NGOs adds value to our work and it allows for synergies and to build on each other’s competences,” Ms Al Dalli says.

In the MENA region, SOS Children’s Villages is in a unique position to help. “We are very well integrated in the countries where we work: the national associations have existed for decades, and are well respected in the country,” she explains.

But children’s needs have not received enough consideration in emergency responses. “When we look back to the 1980s and 1990s, refugee camps were set up without regard for gender considerations, for example,” Ms Al Dalli continues. “With time and with a lot of advocacy, things changed. There's a lot of work that needs to be done along those lines regarding children, and, particularly, unaccompanied children.”

Refugees in the MENA region

Although discussions in many countries in the last year focused on Europe’s response to the rising numbers of asylum seekers, most refugees actually settle in neighbouring countries. “The countries in the region are taking the brunt of the displacement caused by conflict. Tiny Lebanon, with four million inhabitants, is hosting over one million people, representing 25% of the population,” Ms Al Dalli explains. “Nobody wants to leave their home,” she adds. “People only take this extreme step when their lives and the lives of their children are threatened.”
Thousands of Syrian refugees have found shelter inside the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon. This family shares a room without running water with four other people. Photo: Björn-Owe Holmberg

“The countries in the Middle East and North Africa which are receiving refugees are very fragile,” Ms Al Dalli says. For an example, she mentions Dohuk, a northern province in Kurdistan, with a population of around 1.2 million, which is hosting 800,000 refugees, most of them Iraqis displaced by conflict in their country, but also 250,000 Syrian refugees. There are more than 20 refugee camps in this province alone.

Challenges in the conflict areas

In SOS Children’s Villages’ work in the region, humanitarian and development work interface and overlap. SOS Interim Care Centres set up in humanitarian emergencies, for instance, work in a similar way to an SOS Children’s Village. But children are not expected to stay there in the long run, so SOS Children’s Villages works to reunite them with their families if possible, or to find permanent family placements for them. Immediate emergency support is combined with longer-term perspectives.

SOS Child Friendly Spaces provide a welcoming environment and educational and psychosocial support to children living in the context of conflict or other emergencies on a daily basis. Until very recently, SOS Children’s Villages ran a Child Friendly Space in Aleppo, where children could go to play, learn and receive counselling. However, with the intensification of fighting closer to the city centre, this space had to be closed at the end of April. “It became dangerous to keep it open and assure the children's safety,” Ms Al Dalli says. “We are now assessing the situation to see when we can reopen.”

Coming back to the need of putting children at the heart of humanitarian action, Ms Al Dalli calls on governments to listen to the concerns and needs of young people. “First, we need to build children’s capacity and then allow them to get out there and win the world.”

Read more about SOS Children's Villages' work with refugees