A Systems Approach to Child Protection: Does Theory Reflect Reality in Protracted Refugee Situations?

Susanne Hassel and Ulrike Krause


Forced displacement impacts children significantly, not only because they are uprooted but also because they often are stuck in limbo in refugee camps for several years. Too often in these situations, their rights are not taken into account or even are violated. Children are vulnerable to disease and malnutrition, face diverse forms of physical violence, suffer exploitation and abuse, and have few opportunities for meaningful participation. Moreover, children frequently are separated from their families and do not have adequate and specific support systems.

Where states are unable to provide sufficient safety nets, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to protect and assist refugees and to find durable solutions for them. Along with other humanitarian aid agencies, UNHCR has developed various methods and

S. Hassel (*) • U. Krause

The Center for Conflict Studies (CCS), Philipps University in Marburg, Marburg, Germany

© The Author(s) 2016

M.O. Ensor, E.M. Gozdziak (eds.), Children and Forced Migration, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40691-6_9

instruments to assess, among others, children’s protection needs with the goal of guaranteeing the best interests of them in complex situations. Through its humanitarian aid mandate, children receive refugee aid to serve as a bridge until durable solutions can be found; however, refugee children are confronted with various specific rights violations, threats, and challenges in protracted situations.

Although international aid switched from needs-based to human rights-based approaches during the 1990s, a more systemic thinking about child protection has been initiated that has led to the systems approach in recent years. Instead of tackling a range of isolated single needs, agencies aim to establish a holistic protection framework based on children’s rights with the systems approach that respects, protects, and fulfills these rights. Considering that children are confronted with diverse challenges during displacement, that such conditions intensify when durable solutions cannot be established, and that protracted refugee situations (PRS) arise, the argument here is that the systems approach to child protection offers the potential to better protect them. But then, how does such a systems approach function? What does it mean to use this approach in order to aid refugees? How does it correlate with a refugee protection system that is characterized by a short-term humanitarian aid approach? Under these guiding questions, this chapter considers the global trends of increased forced displacement and protracted situations.

After outlining key developments and approaches relevant to implementing children’s rights, the following sections explore the functioning of the systems approach through a conceptual analysis. Based on that, these theoretical ideas are compared with the complex dynamics of protracted refugee situations. With a focus on selected stakeholders of international cooperation in refugee aid and child protection in the Global South, the chapter draws on debates in forced migration and refugee studies, development studies, peace and conflict studies, and childhood studies with a compelling practice and policy orientation. Based on a human rights-based approach, it is possible to understand that children can be active rights-holders[1] who are able to claim their rights from relevant stakeholders and duty-bearers (Jonsson 2003, 11).

  • [1] Within this scope of an explicit practice and policy orientation, the chapter does not aim to analyze how refugee children perceive themselves as rights-holders.
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