Globally, children are more likely to suffer from explosive violence in their homes – the places they are meant to feel the safest. AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor (EVM) data shows that, as reported in English language media, between 2011-2020 most children were killed and injured in urban, residential settings (see Figure 1). The same bombs that take children’s lives destroy their schools, hospitals and shelter, leaving urban and other populated areas immediately or ultimately uninhabitable.
In response to this, this report examines the impacts of initial and protracted child displacement caused by explosive weapons.
Explosive violence is the primary driver of conflict-driven displacement. In populated areas explosive weapons destroys civilian infrastructure, leaving families without shelter, damaging essential services and resulting in socio-economic deprivation.
When barrel bombs were introduced into the theatre of combat in Syria, the reported number of refugees increased from 250,000 to half a million (from September to December 2012), rising to four million by the end of 2014. A study of Syrian refugees revealed that of those surveyed, 80% stated they left Syria after 2013 when barrel bombs became widely used.
The same is true for Hudaydah governorate in Yemen. Throughout the conflict, Hudaydah’s residential areas suffered unceasing bombardment from rockets and mortar shelling. In January 2019, Save the Children reported that 1 in 10 children in Yemen had been displaced, the epicentre of this displacement being Hudaydah, in which 250,000 children has been displaced over a period of 6 months.
Booby traps, landmines, and explosive remnants of war (ERW) prevent displaced families from returning to their homes long after the fighting has stopped.
As of 2018, an estimated 31 million children were recorded as displaced by armed conflict, 17 million of which were internally displaced people (IDPs) – the highest number since records began. In May, 2019, this estimate of internally displaced children jumped to 19 million, with 3.8 million newly displaced in 2019. UNICEF estimates that children account for just under half (42%) of all IDPs displaced by conflict – despite making up less than a third of the general population – with nearly 1 in 3 children living outside their birth country being refugees.
Impact on children
The effect of displacement on children is multidimensional and drawn-out; impacting one, several, or all of the following issue areas: security, psychological and psychosocial health, and educational access.
Safety and security
When families are in flight from explosive violence their safety is further compromised. In 2018 in Yemen, 22 children and four women were reportedly killed when an airstrike hit their vehicle as they were trying to flee the fighting in Hudaydah governorate.
Children are vulnerable to abuse, violence and exploitation, including trafficking and child labour. The conflict monitoring group ACLED recorded at least 25 attacks against internally displaced people in just the second half of 2018, in Yemen.
Child safety is far from guaranteed in refugee and IDP camps. Data from AOAV’s EVM shows that in 2019, at
Safety is not guaranteed in refugee and IDP camps. Data from AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor shows that in 2019, at least 51 children were killed from explosive violence on refugee, IPD and nomad camps. The close ties between human smugglers, who facilitate travel for around 90% of the migrants, and criminal networks, puts displaced families and children at risk. Tragically, the risk of gender-based violence including rape, sexual assault, inter-partner violence and child marriage increases for adolescent girls in humanitarian settings. A 2020 study found that up to a third of girls living in a humanitarian setting report that their first sexual encounter was forced.
In a 2019 report, UNICEF observed that in countries with widespread displacement – both internal and as refugees – child marriage is a “negative coping strategy”. For example, in Iraq, the practice increased from 15% of girls in 1997 to 24% in 2016. The same phenomenon was seen in Yemen; before the war, child marriage stood at 32%, by 2017, according to a UNICEF survey of six Yemeni governates, 72.5% of women said they were married before age 18 and about 44.5% before age 15.
Psychological and psychosocial health
The wide-area effects of explosive weapons rob children of any kind of therapeutic environment, such as school, park or playgroup. According to Dr Paul Wise, Professor of Paediatrics and Health Policy at Stanford University, the absence of “normalizing environment… only exacerbates long-term mental health effects”.
The years that children spend moving from refuge to refuge, is a period that frequently leads to prolonged and repeat trauma of fleeing explosive violence. Forced migration, resettling and potential deportation typically occur within a context of exploitation, stigma, discrimination, economic disadvantage – the more of these factors that occur, the more likely there will be adverse effects on a child’s biological, neurological, and psychological development.
Once resettled, the psychosocial impact on displaced children may not end. Children who have seen their communities destroyed, can find it difficult to adapt to a new environment, especially since refugees and IDPs start to notice they are living alongside those with a higher quality of life, more opportunities, and legal rights. A sense of anxiety, distrust and cultural dislocation can be compounded when the harms caused by explosive violence and subsequent migration are not addressed by host governments. Beyond this, the logistics of migration can be difficult for children, often children are required to learn a new language and fit into a new culture, which, beyond limiting their access to support, can further hinder integration, and exacerbate feelings of isolation and other psychological stresses.
Educational outcomes of displaced children are profoundly reduced. Among refugees, 39% of primary school-age children and 77% of secondary school-age adolescents are not enrolled in education. In 2016 refugee children were found to be five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children. Out of the 7.4 million school refugee children under the UNHCR’s mandate, 4 million are unable to attend school. Only 1% of refugee youth attend university, this is compared to 34% globally.
Displacement is rarely short lived and more often chronic. For refugees displacement lasts 20 years on average and more than 10 years for 90% of IDPs – a report from the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict in 2018, observed how “temporary displacement to elude localized violence often becomes a permanent condition”. A child’s displacement may stretch across their early development years into adolescence and onto early adulthood.
Research support provided by Chiara Jancke
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