Experts urge Yale to take a leading role in the child refugee crisis

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Unni Karunakara, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was one of the panelists last week. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

As the global child refugee crisis intensifies, Yale convened experts from various global organizations on Oct. 5 to better understand the crisis, the challenges NGOs face, and how Yale can help address it.

The panel, titled “Yale’s Role in the Global Child Refugee Crisis,” was organized by the Yale Child Study Center and included Unni Karunakara, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former international president of Doctors Without Borders (MSF); Christopher George, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS); Katie Murphy, International Rescue Committee (IRC); Ayla Goksel, CEO of Mother Child Education Foundation (ACEV); and Dr. Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF.

According to Angelica Ponguta, one of the two moderators from the Yale Child Study Center, about 59 million people have been displaced as of 2014, of which 51% are children. The magnitude of the problem has prompted conversations about how Yale can take a leading role in solving the crisis, she said.

“We have hope and we believe in our Yale community,” said Ponguta. “We truly believe that by informing ourselves and thinking seriously about action, we will be able to make a sustained difference.”

Dr. Kyle Dean Pruett, a clinical professor at the Child Study Center and the other moderator, said that they chose to focus on children for the panel because he believes that “children start off well, and we need to be putting our efforts in keeping them well.” Key to keeping children well is providing access to education and health services, the panelists said.

George noted, however, that he has found early childhood education programs and education programs in general are treated as “luxuries” rather than essential services.

“IRIS has tried to raise sufficient private funds and use amazing volunteers from Yale and other places around the state in order to mount an education program for children. We have an early childhood program at our office but just for six kids. We have a waitlist of 20 kids,” he said.

In Turkey, one of the countries most affected by the refugee crisis, said Goksel, 70% of school-aged children are not in school and “these children run the risk of falling to radical groups.” A similar problem exists in Lebanon where 80% of children are out of school, noted Karunakara.

The IRC provides educational programs for refugees in Syria and also provides parenting programs due to the “traumatic” experiences caregivers face. Murphy says these programs are focused on psychosocial support for the parents so they can better provide “nurturing care for their children and build resilience in their children.”

Similarly, George noted that language services for the children’s parents are essential in ensuring children don’t bear the burden as interpreters and “navigators of culture” for their families.

Alipui recommended also reaching out to the leaders and providing them with leadership training that is directly relevant to the crisis.

“I am just appalled and surprised by how little people in leadership positions making decisions that lead to destruction of life and property know about the consequences of their actions,” he said. “Yale has the clout to be able to bring about change in leadership training that is directed specifically at leaders that are part of the conflict today.”

Another problem organizations have encountered is monetary, said the panelists. Turkey currently has 2 million registered “guests” and has spent around $6 billion on refugee resources despite only receiving around $400 million from international organizations.

“We need to better coordinate this global humanitarian response and this notion of burden sharing,” said Goksel. “Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey have all been very generous but the generosity has limits, just purely financial limits. I don’t think Turkey can spend another $6 billion. The burden sharing has to happen, and it has to happen very quickly.”

Even as the U.S. State Department begins to increase the annual cap on refugees permitted into the country from 70,000 today to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017, George said the United States could be doing more to help. His organization, IRIS, is one of roughly 350 refugee resettlement agencies across the country, and he believes the size of crisis requires a bigger response. He said he hopes to see the cap increase to 200,000 instead.

Karunakara said he believes that addressing the healthcare needs of children is also a major issue facing NGOs in the current crisis. With the recent bombing of a MSF hospital in Afghanistan, he said, health care workers need to be better protected. He also cited registration delays, government policies, and the lack of respect for international conventions as additional barriers to providing healthcare services.

“Last week, Somalia became the 196th country to ratify the Convention of the Rights of the Child. There’s only one country left yet to ratify that convention: that’s the United States of America. So why don’t we start a campaign? This is what university students should do; this is what civil society should do,” he urged the audience.

“And this will address not just the problems of the refugee children,” he noted, “but also of children in the U.S. who are getting shot everyday and have unsafe environments at school. The U.S. is the only country that has not signed the convention so that would be a good place to start.”

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