Groups at Risk and Vulnerable Groups
· Develop and
strengthen community-based support for vulnerable groups wherever
· Ensure that
children are cared for in ways that meet both their physical and emotional
needs; individual care of unaccompanied children is all-important;
· Ensure that all
groups among the refugees can participate in decision making affecting their
27. In dealing with vulnerable groups, community based support
is preferred, and only as a last resort should small, special facilities be
established. These should be short-term to shelter vulnerable individuals while
identifying community support mechanisms.
28. Experience shows that in refugee emergencies certain groups
are likely to be more at risk than others. Standard criteria for vulnerability,
and for eligibility for the provision of special assistance should be developed
in conjunction with refugees. Some groups may be excluded from decisions
directly affecting their wellbeing, and the particular needs of these groups may
be unintentionally ignored or excluded in programme development. This exclusion
may result in making the group vulnerable. This is often the case with minority
groups. Women, who often make up the majority of the population, can be excluded
in much the same manner.
29. In emergencies vulnerable refugees may need special
transport where the refugee has physical problems which would prevent long
distance movement. This would include older persons, the disabled, women in late
pregnancy, severely malnourished or those in severe psychological distress. If
special transport is needed, the refugee should be accompanied by a responsible
attendant (usually a relative) and a clear reunion point identified to prevent
further vulnerability through separation.
30. When individual casework is necessary, up-to-date records
and confidential individual dossiers should be kept, and a simple periodic
reporting system instituted, focusing on the needs identified and services
provided rather than giving just statistical data. It is important that case
records are transferred with refugees when they are moved. A coordinated
response avoids unnecessary repetition of basic interviewing which is not only a
waste of time but can also be psychologically damaging.
Children (including Adolescents)
31. For the purposes of this Handbook, "children" should be
understood to mean "persons below the age of 18 years" (as defined in the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989), and therefore includes young
children and adolescents.
32. Children make up a large proportion of most refugee
populations. Early interventions during emergencies will help to normalize and
stabilize their situation. Specialized agency expertise may be needed for parts
of a child-focused programme.
33. Birth registration may be a prerequisite for obtaining
nationality, enrolling in school and may be a vital tool for tracing. It can
also be important in preventing military recruitment and other forms of
exploitation. Ensure that the births of all refugee children are registered.
Ideally births should be registered through the same procedure applicable to
nationals. Where this is not possible the authorities should be encouraged to
establish a separate birth registration system for refugee births. If this is
not possible either, organize a temporary attestation system to ensure, at a
minimum, that the date, place of birth and the names and nationalities of both
parents are recorded. The UNHCR Field Office or the Red Cross/Red Crescent
could, for example, issue such an attestation.
34. Different age groups will have different problems, young
children have very different needs from teenagers.
35. UNHCR has an MOU with UNICEF which outlines their respective
responsibilities for children and unaccompanied minors- UNICEF takes the lead in
countries of origin and UNHCR in countries of asylum (see MOU attached as
36. Take the following action:
Identify and develop
community-based mechanisms to monitor refugee childrens' assistance and
Identify whether the child
population as a whole might have any specific characteristics or needs as a
consequence of the trauma of their flight and life before finding asylum: in
particular, where children have been victims of and/or participants in armed
conflict, or might have particular psychological, physical or social problems as
Identify what current risks
there may be to the child population: for example a risk of on-going military
recruitment, or of sexual exploitation or abuse;
Promote the social role of
adolescents in the community and their responsibility towards others in need,
for example they can serve as community workers. Adolescents will need support,
especially if they have assumed adult roles as heads-of-households. They will
also need access to and education about reproductive health services, and
Coordinate with the health
and nutrition sectors in organizing education campaigns and outreach activities
in community health, nutrition and sanitation, such as promoting breast feeding,
immunization and feeding programmes;
Organize play groups,
recreation activities and emergency education for pre-schoolers and for school
age children including girls and vulnerable children;
Identify resources within and
outside the community which could be used to address the needs of children and
young people (and their families). These community resources should encourage
self-reliance, and work towards preventing domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug
and alcohol abuse and involvement in military activities;
Integrate the needs of
children in all programming activities.
37. UNHCR defines an unaccompanied minor as one who is below 18
years of age who has been separated from both parents and for whose care no
person can be found who by law or custom has primary responsibility. Note that
other organizations may have other definitions of unaccompanied minors. In
addition, note that unaccompanied minors are sometimes also called separated
38. Labelling children as orphans tends to encourage adoptions,
(and in some cases, there may be enormous external pressure for orphanages
and/or third country adoption) rather than focusing on family tracing, foster
placements and increasing community support.
The description "unaccompanied minors", or "separated
minors", should always be used in place of "orphans".
39. Although the government of the country of asylum should take
legal responsibility for these minors, with UNHCR offering advice and
assistance, in practice if government resources are thinly stretched, UNHCR may
take a more pro-active role.
Prevention of Separation
40. Family unity must be preserved as much as possible - take no
action that may prevent family reunion. The failure to protect family unity not
only results in avoidable physical and emotional suffering, but subsequent
efforts to reunite families are costly and difficult, and delays in family
reunification will impede durable solutions. Although children are often
separated from their families while their families are in flight, steps can be
taken to minimize further separations, and to maximize the chances of timely and
Steps to prevent separation include supporting households at
risk, and ensuring care provided to unaccompanied minors does not become an
incentive for parents to abandon their children to institutionalized care.
41. There is sometimes pressure to rescue minors from dangerous
situations but some child-only evacuations have caused years of separation and
in some cases the breaks have been permanent. The physical dangers may be over
estimated, while the children's psychological need to be with their parents may
be under appreciated.
There should be no evacuations separating children from their
parents or others recognized as primary caretakers (custody) unless essential to
42. If an evacuation is essential, the following safeguards
should be observed. Minors should be accompanied by an adult relative, and if
this is not possible, by a qualified care-giver known to the children, such as
their teachers. The minors' identities must be fully documented before
departure. Whenever possible, documentation should travel with the minors, and
caregivers should be waiting at the destination. The evacuation must be
coordinated with the designated lead agency. If the minors are moved across an
international border, written agreements with the government should be secured
in advance in order to ensure family visits and reunions are possible.
43. Continuity of existing care arrangements will help avoid
further disruption and may facilitate reunion. Siblings should be kept together,
as should unrelated children who have been living together and give each other
Assessment, Identification, Registration and
44. Make a rapid assessment of the situation of unaccompanied
minors among the refugee population. The first source of information for
identifying unaccompanied minors will be the refugees themselves and the
community leaders. A general registration or census of refugees may provide a
suitable occasion for initial identification without raising expectations before
seeking more detailed information.
45. A general registration or census will also identify those
children not alone, but not with their immediate family, and who thus require
tracing. Give priority to identifying children under five years, girls who may
be subject to sexual abuse and boys who may be recruited into military service.
46. Once identified, unaccompanied minors should be individually
registered as soon as possible (see Annex 2, unaccompanied minor registration
Registration should not raise expectations for special status
The Emergency Kit for Unaccompanied Children provides guidance
and tools for identification, registration, and tracing. This can be ordered
from Headquarters and contains a priority actions handbook, emergency
registration books, cameras, equipment and basic supplies.
47. Ensure that children are issued with separate registration
documents and ration cards and that these documents (including a recent
photograph), always travel with the child. These measures will avoid confusion
if a fostering arrangement breaks down.
48. Unaccompanied minors should be individually assessed and
medically screened. A sympathetic and imaginative approach to interviewing
children is very important and best conducted by carefully trained refugees, if
possible by someone the child already knows and trusts. If an interview has to
take place through an interpreter, the interpreter must be well briefed, with
his or her role limited to direct translation, and must not be allowed to break
personal contact between interviewer and child. Children may react very
differently, depending, for example, on the degree of their trauma, fear and
shyness. The presence of the child's friend(s) at the interview can not only
reassure the child but may also yield important information. Any accompanying
adults or persons who brought the child forward should also be interviewed.
49. As soon as unaccompanied minors are identified, start to
trace their parents or families. Family tracing is not considered exhausted
before a two year investigation has been completed. All claims for reunification
must be verified, as mistakes and false claims sometimes occur.
Care and Protection of Unaccompanied Minors
50. Children separated from their immediate next-of-kin during a
refugee emergency are often cared for by the refugee community, frequently
within an extended family.
It is only where children cannot be cared for by the
community that special measures will be required for their care.
Whenever possible, children should be placed with families, as
institutional placements cannot provide adequately for children's developmental
needs and social and cultural integration into society. Ideally, they should be
cared for by relatives or others from the same ethnic or cultural groups.
51. One of the most important principles in the care of any
child is that relationships must be stable, because of the importance of the
emotional bond developed with the care-giver. An unaccompanied minor must be
placed in a family where bonding can continue until the parent(s) or recognized
first caretaker(s) are found. The child will then need time to reestablish a
bond with his or her parent(s) or original caretaker(s). A period of overlap
with the two families may therefore be necessary, in order to permit the
re-establishment of the relationship with the parents while avoiding an abrupt
severance of the ties with the foster family. Where years have elapsed, the
child's interests may be better served by remaining with the foster family.
UNHCR's usual practice is to allow unaccompanied minors over 15 to take
decisions concerning durable solutions for themselves.
52. Criteria for foster family care should be worked out
together with the community. Foster care arrangements should be formalized as
quickly as possible by signed contracts or agreements, with an understanding
that children should be returned to their immediate family if located.
Particularly needy host families may be provided with an incentive to support
the child on a case by case basis, but not as a systematic measure for all
foster families. Food rations and other normal assistance should of course,
continue to be provided for the child through the foster family. However, the
child should continue to have registration and ration documents separate from
those of the foster family. Foster care arrangements should be monitored closely
through outreach activities in the community. Careful account should be taken of
cultural attitudes towards fostering. For instance, in some situations, a family
may find it hard to conceive of taking in a child except as a servant.
53. Where child care centres are necessary, they should be
small, decentralized within the community, and integrated into community
Remember that when the facilities and services provided for
unaccompanied children are significantly better than those otherwise available,
parents may actually place children in special care.
54. The advantage of small residential centres is that if
reunification with the parents is expected to take place quickly, such centres
provide an efficient way of caring for the children while at the same time not
losing sight of them during the upheaval and confusion at the start of an
Unaccompanied minors should be integrated into the life,
activities and services available to other children. Avoid either marginalizing
them or paying them special attention.
55. Ensure continuity and stability in care (foster families and
other) by employing refugee and national community services staff who are less
likely to move on than international staff.
56. Provide supervision, support and training to child care
workers, including child interviewing techniques, child development, community
mobilization and child trauma. Train refugees and aid workers to identify and
register unaccompanied minors from the outset of an emergency.
57. While it is not correct to see women as a vulnerable group,
women do have specific needs which, if not met, can put them at risk, such as
vulnerability to exploitation and sexual abuse, sexual discrimination and
restricted access to basic services. In addition, many decisions in camp
management which affect women are made without them being consulted. Not
including refugee women in decision making about camp management may put them at
risk and add to their workload. In addition, the effectiveness of the assistance
programme may be reduced because the problems and needs of all the beneficiaries
have not been properly identified.
58. However, when seeking women's participation in
decision-making, it is also wise to remember that measures which challenge the
status quo may be threatening to traditional leaders. Special efforts may be
needed to overcome resistance to change.
Culture and tradition cannot be used as reasons to exclude
refugee women from participation in decision-making.
To Ensure Women's Participation:
Include refugee women in
leadership functions and give them responsible roles in the community including
participation in decision-making bodies;
Ensure that women have equal
access to services and facilities, particularly health and reproductive health
care services, and inform persons concerned about these resources;
Encourage activities such as
adult literacy classes which will help empower women and bring them together for
Provide community support to
women by organizing recreational and educational activities for
Develop preventive protection
mechanisms with the community to ensure protection of women against all forms of
Work with the elders and
other influential groups to gain their support for the participation of women in
Single Parent Households
59. In refugee emergencies, the majority of single parent
households are female-headed. However, community services must be sensitive to
the needs of both male and female single parents. Men may have to be supported
in the functions of rearing children and organizing household responsibilities.
Women who have to manage the family needs on their own are at risk as they are
vulnerable to exploitation and harassment, especially if they are young. They
may be exposed to pressures attached to provision of food and material
resources. Women must therefore be included in food management and other
committees. Some women may have to resort to prostitution in order to provide
for their families, particularly if they do not have any skills to earn a
Survivors of Violence
60. Men, women and children can be victims of violence in
conflict situations (including torture, rape or solitary confinement) and suffer
consequent trauma. Rape is a crime of violence, and is sometimes used as a
systematic method of intimidation. Survivors of rape can be any age from the
very young to the very old and belong to any social group. It should be
remembered that survivors of sexual violence including rape can be men as well
as women. It is important to recognize that the consequences of sexual violence
on children and adolescents will differ from that on adults.
61. Where there is a high risk of violence, steps can be taken
to reduce exposure and vulnerability. Crimes of sexual violence may be more
likely to occur where women and/or children are exposed and vulnerable, such as
when they collect firewood or water from distant points. The level of risk of
violence including sexual violence from within or outside the community, should
be reflected in taking increased precautions in camp security, and in creating
mechanisms to allow people to travel outside the camp in safety e.g. fuel-wood
gathering in groups.
Take the Following Action
Establish services for
survivors of violence which are integrated into other community and health care
Ensure confidentiality is
Organize counselling support
services using trusted, supportive refugee staff, including female
Organize support groups with
people who are trusted;
Provide a safe place for
survivors to stay, with friends if possible;
Ensure appropriate legal and
medical services are established and accessible, including access to female
Mobilize community support by
discussing the general problem with them to ensure more compassionate treatment.
Religious heads and community leaders in particular can influence attitudes to
survivors of violence;
Ensure that site layout,
fencing and lighting promote physical safety. Good site planning, including
location of services, will help create conditions where violence will be less
likely (see chapter 12 on site planning).
Sensitize the community to
the problem and the seriousness of domestic violence. An emergency situation
often triggers an increase in levels of domestic violence, particularly in the
early stages. However, in the later stages of an emergency incidents of domestic
violence may remain high and on occasion escalate, if the situation generates
high levels of stress.
62. Urgent medical treatment must be provided to any person who
has been raped to help deal with the physical trauma. A protocol for management
of such persons, based on host country laws, should be adopted.
63. Post trauma reactions to sexual violence include feelings of
shame and guilt, anger, humiliation, nightmares, withdrawal, depression and
suicidal tendencies. Family, friends and community support groups must be
alerted to these possible reactions so that they can understand and assist the
survivors of violence.
64. Social attitudes to rape are usually very judgmental. A
woman who becomes pregnant by rape may need help in being accepted by her family
and the community or in placing a child for adoption. In some cases a man or a
woman who has been raped may have to leave their present location in order to
lead a normal life. This is especially the case of a woman with a child, who may
then be left without family support. Additionally, she may feel hostile towards
the child, a common post trauma reaction.
65. Any documentation of a case should be undertaken with the
utmost confidentiality. It is the survivors choice whether or not to take legal
action; there may be very strong considerations not to do so. If legal action is
taken, the survivor will need support and protection in every step of what is a
painful process, and should be made aware of exactly what degree of protection
and care will be available.
66. Community services, protection and health staff must work
together for survivors of rape and sexual violence. Protection staff can provide
information on legal action and monitor the legal process if charges are
pressed. Health personnel should make necessary treatment facilities and
documentation available. Community services should work directly with the
survivor concerned, and with the family of the survivor, as well as establish
support groups and more generally sensitize refugees to the problems of rape. A
refugee team, which could complement the UNHCR community services team, may be
established to provide outreach to women reluctant to come forward.
Disabled and Handicapped
67. Disabled and handicapped persons might have problems in
accessing goods and services available to refugees and steps must be taken to
ensure this access, including that of disabled children to whatever schooling is
available. In some refugee situations, but more often in returnee situations,
additional dangers of land-mines mean that an information campaign must be
started immediately to prevent further disability. Initial care for the disabled
should be through families and the community, nevertheless, rehabilitation
services (e.g. wheelchairs, crutches) should also be introduced as soon as
possible. Community based rehabilitation to care for disabled people is an
approach that should be promoted from the outset of an emergency.
68. The presence of older people in the community can strengthen
the bonds and the sense of belonging. However, physical deterioration may limit
their mobility and hence their access to basic services. Those most at risk are
living alone or caring for young children.
Older persons can constitute a significant proportion of the
refugee population though they are often overlooked.
69. Consideration should be given to include older persons in
the supplementary feeding programmes. Even if older people can obtain food
rations, limited mobility may preclude collection of water or fuel essential for
70. For the more frail elderly, family and community care should
be encouraged. Refugee community workers should identify neighbours, relatives
or others who can help these people with food, water or fuel collection.
71. It should be kept in mind that after any repatriation, the
elderly may make up a high proportion of refugees remaining behind in the
country of asylum. Hence local government structures and local NGO capacity
should be strengthened to care for them.
Isolated Social Groups
72. Every society has its social, religious, political or ethnic
groups whose access to services is restricted even under normal conditions. They
become particularly vulnerable during emergencies as assistance is likely to be
channelled through the leaders of the majority groups. Immediate assessment
should be made of any of these groups to determine if they can be integrated
into the refugee community, or whether special provision must be made.
In the early stages of an emergency, cultural and traditional
customs that may be harmful to particular groups of refugees such as genital
mutilation, early marriages and other abusive practices should be addressed and