What can the EU do at the World Humanitarian Summit for children?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Children constituted an exceptionally high percentage of the casualties of the 2014 war in Gaza. They remain at risk, due to malnutrition and exposure. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

The World Humanitarian Summit takes places in Istanbul on 23-24 May. With the EU as one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid donors, it can be a real ‘game-changer’, writes Marco Nardin.

Marco Nardin works for Save the Children, EU Office, focusing on humanitarian policy, including the World Humanitarian Summit.

Imagine a country of 125 million people, the eleventh most populous country in the world.

Now imagine that children make up at least half of its population and that the life of all these people depends on humanitarian aid.

This is the reality according to some of the world’s leading humanitarians. Needs are growing, and so is the budget shortfall for meeting them – currently at $15 billion. Amid proliferating humanitarian crises, ranging from Syria and the refugees to the worldwide effects of El-Nino, the humanitarian system is increasingly stretched.

The World Humanitarian Summit this May in Istanbul is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix it. There are high stakes. Getting it right can change for the better the lives of millions of children at risk of having their future blighted due to conflict and natural disasters.

To inspire commitments in the lead up to the Summit, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has developed an Agenda for Humanity. He is calling on political leaders to step up and relieve the burden on humanitarian aid. They are urged to take on responsibility for preventing and ending conflict, respecting and ensuring the respect of the norms that safeguard humanity, reducing the risk of natural disasters and leaving no one behind.

This involves tackling the root causes that force people to move and make disasters happen, finding sustainable solutions to the problem of forced displacement in protracted crises, supporting refugees and migrants, ensuring that every child receives a quality education and is protected from violence, including in crises.

EU as a leading protection actor for children

At the summit in Istanbul, the EU has the means to be a real game changer. ECHO is one of the largest humanitarian donors, and has a strong focus on protection.

At a time where humanitarian suffering is closer to home, with victims of conflict and crisis seeking arriving at EU shores, the EU bears a greater responsibility than ever to bring about the necessary acceptance of our shared duty to protect the most vulnerable people around the world. Right now, children make up one third of asylum-seekers trying to reach Europe and one in four asylum applicants in Europe is a child (800 per day).

Far from questioning the applicability of the 1951 Refugee Convention when confronted with massive influxes of refugees, the World Humanitarian Summit offers to the EU the opportunity to champion a new approach to tackle protracted displacement by supporting a “new deal” for every forcibly displaced child: refugees, asylum seekers and those displaced within their own countries.

Europe, the continent whose conflict and refugee needs inspired the 1951 convention, cannot afford to turn its back on its tenets, nor the core values of humanity, human dignity and human rights.

The European Commission has embraced this vision in its communication “Towards the WHS: A global partnership for principled and effective humanitarian action” and has called on the participants in the summit to reaffirm the universal values of dignity, integrity and solidarity on which the core principles of humanitarianism rely.

This focus on protection is welcome, especially for children, as children in crisis situations are vulnerable to being separated from their families, neglected, physically or sexually abused, killed or injured, trafficked or economically exploited.

Children on the move are particularly exposed to these risks. However, protection can be fully guaranteed only when the norms that safeguard (our) humanity – International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Security Council Resolutions on children and armed conflict, the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol – are respected.

Among these principles, there is the right of all children to be safe and receive a quality education, even during crises. Nevertheless, education in emergency situations and protracted crises (EiE) is chronically underfunded: current figures project a funding gap of $4.8 billion.

The EU – as the first donor to commit 4% of its humanitarian aid budget to EiE – is in the position to take the lead and inspire best practices by supporting the new Common Platform for Education in Emergencies which aims to build sustained global support for education in emergency situations and protracted crises.

The European Parliament has already shown great responsibility by adopting a welcome resolution on EiE and is supporting EiE in its resolution on preparation for the summit. MEPs are calling on the EU and its member states to commit to including systematically education and protection of children in the emergency response cycle, to recognise that protection is a life-saving intervention and that education can increase the effectiveness of the overall humanitarian response.

But even when children get the opportunity to learn, schools are not always the safe places for children that they ought to be. Therefore, the EU and its member states should endorse the principles of the Comprehensive Schools Safety Framework, which aims at reducing risks from all hazards to the education sector and to strengthen risk reduction and resilience through education.

They should also join 52 states who have already done so in signing up to the Safe Schools Declaration and accompanying “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict” so that we can ensure that schools are understood by armed actors to be places uniquely for children and civilians, and not places occupied by soldiers, sites of recruitment, and warfare – and therefore targeted for attack.

 The EU and its member states and other leading donors agreed in London in February to commit to ensuring all children from Syria are in school and learning in 2016/17. Many of these children are in Syria, in neighbouring countries and now in Europe.

The World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to change the narrative on displacement and show compassion for some of the most deprived children. As a first step, we expect that the conclusions on the WHS that the Council adopts in May will endorse the Commission and Parliament’s call for the need to put protection and education at the heart of humanitarian response.

The world is looking to Europe: the continent must step up to lead on delivering a ‘new deal for every forcibly displaced child’ at the summit in Istanbul.

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