Children under increasing threat as fighting continues
UNICEF’s Chief of Communication James Elder reports from Benghazi, Libya.
Before intense fighting engulfed Misrata 50 days ago, five-year-old Dava* would play dress-ups and make beaded necklaces. In this she was probably typical of most five-year-olds living in the western Libyan city. But who would know? For the first two months of this conflict, Libya appeared as this peculiar place devoid of children. There are many inexplicable things we see and hear in Libya, but the strangest has been the initial, almost complete absence of children from images and reports out of the conflict-ridden country. We didn’t see children, we didn’t hear from them, and much as we probed and queried we simply didn’t know nearly enough what was really happening to them.
We do now, and it’s worse than first feared. Dava was killed by shelling on her way to a playground. Reports continue to come in of children being killed and injured in Misrata in hideous incidents. We now know a little of their lives, because we have seen their dying moments.
The youngest child to bear the brunt of the fighting in Misrata was nine months old, and most of those who’ve died over the last two weeks were less than ten years old. Dava’s parents are still trapped in Misrata. Many other children are traumatised from what they see and hear; many have limited access to essential daily needs of water and food; none are in school; others like those in the city of Zintan, south West of Tripoli, are completely cut off. Trapped amid the shooting and the shelling, they probably suffer a similar tragedy to those in Misrata.
Today the UN Humanitarian Chief reiterated calls for a cessation of hostilities; UNICEF has echoed this and called for an end to the siege of Misrata. UNICEF has provided some respite by delivering emergency health and surgical supplies, as well as safe drinking water. It has also provided play kits for children, so as to enable them to stay in the relative safety of indoors. There have been consistent reports of sniper fire hitting children in Misrata. This means children are confined indoors. The kits therefore aim to provide some distraction from the conflict.
Meanwhile, some children in other conflict-ridden cities have been able to flee. As a result an increasing number of Libyan children are receiving assistance. UNICEF is responding through the delivery of health kits and hygiene kits and is providing psychological support. Trauma is a reality for those like 7-year-old Mariam who saw the mortars destroy nearby homes and was only able to grab her diary as the family fled in their car. “There was so much noise, so many explosions,” she tells me, from the safety of a UNICEF-supported refuge. “I was crying, my parents were crying … When can I go home? What has happened to my home…”
Her voice trails off. I fear we both know the answer, so we say nothing.
Children such as Dava and Mariam are today at the forefront of media coverage on Misrata; some extremely courageous journalists report from the front line, their correspondence underlining the confusion, pace and violence of the conflict. “UNICEF welcomes the new focus on Libya’s children,” says Thomas Davin, UNICEF’s emergency team leader for Libya. “They need to be seen and they need to be heard. But until the shooting stops, their stories will continue to be defined by terror and heartache.”
Birth registration effort aims to protect the rights of newborn refugees in Tunisia
Ban Dhayi reports from Ras Jedir, on the Tunisian-Libyan border.
For Sabeela, 28, a pregnant Nigerian refugee who had fled the fighting in Libya just ten days before her expected due date, giving birth under these unfortunate circumstances was an alarming thought that had travelled with her throughout her seven-hour journey by bus from Tripoli to Ras Jedir in southern Tunisia.
“I was so worried about my baby as I was thinking of the uncertain future awaits him. I kept praying all along the road to Shousha camp and was asking all the people in the bus to pray for us”, says Sabeela.
“Nevertheless, all my worries turned into comfort the moment I reached the transit camp at the border and was reassured by kind people there that we would both be given the due care when my time comes”, she adds, speaking from a bed at the maternity ward of the regional Ben Gerden hospital.
On 8 April, baby boy Mosab was born safely weighing 3.5 kilograms. Sabeela was both happy and proud, saying “Mosab is not only healthy and strong, but he also owns a precious thing - he’s got an official birth certificate”.
Umaima, 25, is another refugee who gave birth in the same hospital. She arrived in the United Arab Emirates camp in Ras Jedir four days before her delivery. She had developed hypertension during her pregnancy and needed an emergency delivery by cesarean section.
Umaima struggled to open her eyes as the effect of the general anesthesia wore off. The nurse was laying the tiny baby carefully in his cradle close to Umaima’s bed. “You have given birth to a cute boy weighing 2.9 kilograms - what will you name him?”, enquired the nurse. “Yaseen,” answered the tired mother with a smile.
Yaseen was also issued a birth certificate, which will facilitate smooth repatriation of the whole family to their home country, Sudan, as soon as the doctor gives Umaima the medical clearance to travel.
This vital document is the culmination of a registration process made possible through the joint effort of UNICEF and the Tunisian health authorities, encompassing flexibility and teamwork. Registration of births is the first legal acknowledgement of a child's existence and a crucial first step in attaining rights. Additionally, it protects children against illegal adoption, forced recruitment or trafficking. Unregistered children are often unable to prove their identity, and their rights may go unrealised. A birth certificate to prove a child's correct age is also an important tool for preventing child labour, under-age military service or conscription, and forced marriage for girls. During emergencies, birth registration provides a basis for tracing separated and unaccompanied children.
Not being registered simply means one is not counted, according to Hela Skhiri, UNICEF Child Protection in Tunis. “Putting in place a vital birth registration system for newborn refugees is one of UNICEF’s core commitments for children in emergencies. It will also help us meet our international obligations and in particular the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child”, adds Skhiri.
Mosab and Yaseen are among 14 newborn refugees in the camp issued birth certificates since the outset of refugees influx into Tunisia. This invaluable piece of paper will provide them with the right start in life.