“We left war, but we still have war in our minds” Refugee children in Zambia

“We left war, but we still have war in our minds” Refugee children in Zambia

In Africa conflict and other factors make children flee to countries like Zambia. But how well are children off in these countries? Prof. Julia Sloth-Nielsen and Jill Stein went to Zambia to find out.

As a peace-loving country with neighbouring countries that are suffering from severe violence, Zambia is an attractive country for unaccompanied migrant children. More than 85 per cent of them come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi and many of them have experienced severe traumas in their country of origin and during their journey.** But how well are these children being protected and assisted when they arrive in Zambia? Are their children’s rights being implemented? Prof. Julia Sloth-Nielsen and I visited Zambia to assess this, as part of a larger, 5-country study for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Zambia: an attractive receptive country

Zambia is one of the few countries in Africa that has no history of war. Although 60-75 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line, Zambia seems to be undergoing rapid economic growth, also evidenced by the shopping malls that are rising on every corner in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. But not only does it seem that the economy is growing. The children’s rights framework of Zambia is also currently subject to serious changes and improvements, also evidenced by the new draft Constitution and draft Children’s Code Bill. Cooperation in protecting migrant children has turned out to be very good, also stimulated by the UN Joint Programme on Protecting Migrant Children from Trafficking and Exploitation. With a strong focus on trafficking, outcomes so far include training for first line officials, special Guidelines for Protection Assistance to Vulnerable Migrants, and a National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which ensures that all involved actors know where to refer vulnerable migrants to, depending on their specific needs.

Against this background we assessed the current legal and policy framework and practice through desk research and interviews to identify gaps, challenges and good practices. Although it is important to note that only 20 unaccompanied migrant children were interviewed in this study, these, together with interviews with key informants like UN agencies, government officials and shelters, gave us many insights, which I will try to describe by dividing the migrant process into the following three stages:

Fleeing from conflict

With all interviewed children coming from the DRC (18 children) and Burundi (2 children), stories were often sad since the reason for fleeing was generally always due to conflict or war. Many children had witnessed their parents or other community members being killed, had undergone long and stressful journeys and were not infrequently sexually abused during the journey. At the same time many of these children received help from good Samaritans, truck drivers, etc. to enable them to cross the border illegally. The interviewed children were taken to the Ministry of Home affairs by random people who found them on the streets. Once taken to Home Affairs, they were registered and interviewed as part of their application for refugee status.

Awaiting status determination

Many children await their application for refugee status in one of the transit centres in for example Lusaka or Solwezi Refugee Camp. Although this procedure is supposed to take about 3 months, in practice children sometimes reside their up to 4 years, with an average of 14 months. This is problematic, because the transit centre is supposed to be a temporary solution. Children are not enrolled in school and start to build up serious delays in violation of Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Also, conditions within the camp cannot be said to be wonderful; one of the centres clearly indicated that it was struggling with budgetary cuts and overpopulation. This has inevitably led to many children complaining about the food, but also about other issues, such as clothes, feeling lonely, unsupported and unsafe. Another issue is that proper medical and mental health care seems to be missing at times, which is worrying as it is not in line with Article 24 CRC. Eight children indicated that they were in need of medical treatment and seven clearly indicated that they wished to speak to a social worker about their traumas, because, as one child stated: “we left war, but we still have war in our minds”.

Life in a refugee camp

Once refugee status has been granted, children are transferred to one of the two refugee camps. In line with the reservation Zambia made to Article 26 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, refugees are illegal outside of these camps. I went to Meheba Refugee Camp, near Solwezi, to take a closer look at the situation. I expected a small camp with poor conditions, perhaps even some tents or shacks and other cliché images. However, the opposite was true: I arrived in a huge area, containing spread out brick houses and all necessary facilities like shops, schools, a little hospital and churches. Although it feels like an independent province, refugees will be stuck here for the rest of their lives, restricted in their freedom of movement, only allowed out with special permits. This situation obviously brings many challenges; how do you provide for yourself? What about tertiary education?

Another issue arises if refugee status is not granted; since there is no other solution for a child and repatriation is often impossible due to conditions in the country of origin, the child will basically be stuck in a legal limbo. However, most children seem to be granted refugee status. Two of the interviewed children were even being considered for resettlement in the US and Sweden.

Lessons & challenges

It seems that Zambia could definitely serve as an example for other countries in the region. It has a strong legal and policy framework and the level of cooperation between stakeholders is praiseworthy. However, practice shows that there is still some room for improvement, in particular with regard to the restriction of movement, the legal limbo situation when refugee status is denied and regarding the circumstances and protection assistance while awaiting the status determination. The lack of access to education and medical and mental health care are particularly worrisome in this regard. These latter issues are also likely to be discussed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child during the CRC country session of Zambia in January 2016. In the meantime, further findings and recommendations of this study will soon be drafted in a report for IOM.

* This study was sponsored by Leiden University Fund/Schim van der Loeff-Fund

** UNHCR, IOM & UNICEF, An assessment of north-south corridor borders and migrant host communities in Zambia, Lusaka: UNHCR/IOM/UNICEF 2014


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