Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map

Human Rights Watch - Home Page


The caretaker's other children are in privilege-they go to school every day. I go to school some days, but when I'm hungry I leave to find something to eat . . . My caretaker is sometimes harsh with me. If I don't do work for her and her kids, such as laundry, she says she will kick me out of this environment. . . . She slaps me on the face, and sometimes takes a stick to me. . . . [I can't leave her] because she took me in when I was wandering around with no guidance.48

I liked going to school and studying when I was at home in Sierra Leone. I like to study to be clever. . . . [My caretaker's] kids go to school here, but I don't. . . . because my mom's not here and my dad's not here. . . . I don't have a favorite game. I never play. . . . because my mom's not here and my dad's not here.49

International Legal Standards Child abuse and exploitation are serious human rights issues that must be addressed. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, states are obligated to:
Take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse . . . while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s), or any other person who has the care of the child.52

Likewise, under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child:

Every child shall be protected from all forms of economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's . . . development,53

States . . . shall take specific legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and especially physical or mental injury or abuse, neglect or maltreatment including sexual abuse, while in the care of a parent, legal guardian or school authority or any other person who has the care of the child.54

This report uses the term "separated children" to refer to all children who have been separated from their parents. Most of these children live together with other refugee families, akin to foster parents, whom they generally call "caretakers." This report refers to these foster families as caregivers. In some cases, these caregivers are part of a child's extended family. 55 In other cases they are unrelated and did not know the child before the war; these children?a subset of the broader "separated children" category?are referred to as unaccompanied minors (UAMs). Many of these children may still have living parents and are thus not orphans.

In this report, Human Rights Watch chose not to use the term unaccompanied minors?the term generally used by UNHCR staff in Guinea?for a number of reasons. UNHCR guidelines on refugee children define unaccompanied minors as, "those who are separated from both parents and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible to do so."56 As stated above, this definition of "unaccompanied minor" is narrower than "separated children," because it does not include the many separated children living with extended family members in the camps. UNHCR policy calls for monitoring of care and protection of all separated children.57 The rationale for this is twofold: all separated children are entitled to special protection under international law and all separated children might be at risk of neglect, abuse, or exploitation as discussed below. Nevertheless, UNHCR field staff have provided special protection only to those identified as unaccompanied minors, some 480 in the Guinean camps, excluding the vast majority of separated children.58 In addition, "unaccompanied" is actually somewhat of a misnomer, as most of these children are not completely on their own but rather are being cared for by other refugee families.

Care Arrangements
Thousands of refugee children in Guinea became separated from their families during the war, primarily during attacks on their villages or settlements in Sierra Leone. In some cases, children saw the RUF rebels abduct, mutilate, or murder family members. In other cases, families simply scattered during the panic of attacks. Family members, if still alive, may be dispersed across three countries: some may be found in refugee camps in Guinea or in Liberia, while others remain inside Sierra Leone.

Many children told Human Rights Watch that after they were separated from their parents a family or an individual among the thousands fleeing the conflict took them in and brought them to Guinea. Most of the children have become attached to these refugee families, akin to foster families, and refer to their foster mothers and other caregivers as "caretakers." One separated child explained:

I was in Koidu with my father and mother. We went to the bush to hide from the rebels, but they captured my mother and father. I was by a coffee tree when they killed my younger brother. I had no one left, so I ran away and I followed people here [to Guinea]. As I was crying, crying, a woman saw me and I explained my story . . . so the woman took me along with her. I now stay with this forced caretaker.59
Adama H., a woman in Massakundou camp who cares for two separated children in addition to six of her own children, told Human Rights Watch:
I found the first child at a village in Kono district of Sierra Leone. I saw a group of people gathered around a sick child with a swollen stomach. I asked the child his name and where his parents were. He replied that his parents were lost in the attack. My youngest child begged me to take the child, carry him home, and maybe he would get better. I gave him some food and medicine. . . . From that time the boy has stayed with me. When I try to ask the boy about his family, he just says they got lost. We fled from village to village to the bush, moving a lot, fleeing the rebels. We didn't find the boy's parents, so we said he could stay with us.

Later, we returned to our village in Sierra Leone. There, we met a girl who had been kidnapped by the rebels and raped by them. The girl helped me sell cassava in the market. Then came "Operation No Living Thing." 60 Things got so bad. We had no food or medicine. The children were sick. So we decided to walk for days to come to Guinea, and we took these two children with us.

Still other children are staying with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or extended family member in Guinea. Even though they are with relatives, these children have sometimes been subjected to neglect, abuse, or exploitation, as those with unrelated caregivers have. Community leaders told Human Rights Watch that children cared for by an elderly grandparent can be especially vulnerable, as the elderly are frequently not strong enough to work or provide for them.

Families who care for separated children usually receive limited amounts of additional assistance to meet a child's needs, including a mat for the child to sleep on, medicine if the child is sick, and used clothes for the child to wear. They should also receive a food ration for every separated child living in the household, as they do for all family members. They do not, however, receive compensation for caring for separated children.

While many refugee families who have taken children in have done so with the child's best interest at heart, other families neglect, mistreat, or exploit these children for labor. Given the spontaneous nature with which these care arrangements were formed during the 1998 emergency influx, neither UNHCR nor any other organization had the opportunity to screen caregivers to determine whether they would act in the child's best interests. Better monitoring of existing arrangements, however, as well as screening prior to agency placement of a child with a caregiver should be urgent priorities.

Several children interviewed by Human Rights Watch stay in adolescent-headed households in which children, usually adolescents, provide care for other children. Particular problems may arise for the children being cared for as well as for the adolescents struggling to take on such responsibilities. The lack of special assistance to these households can result in everyone in the household, including young children, having to work to survive. Fatimata S., for example, is a seventeen-year-old girl in the Fangamadou camp who cares for six younger children: four siblings and two separated children she found who are not related to her. Fatimata S. had been pregnant when she fled from her village in Sierra Leone, but she miscarried during the trip to Guinea.

I get no assistance, I can't go to school. I went to school in Sierra Leone, up to Form III. . . . The older children who stay with me don't go to school. The ten and fourteen year olds, my sisters, take care of domestic work in the house. They make sugar drink to sell in the market so we can buy soap and kerosene. They also work for Guinean citizens sometimes. The younger ones sometimes go to school, but they have to work, too. . . . Sometimes the neighbors give us food, they take pity on us. . . . I want to do something-any job. I'm just sitting idle but have no chance. I would like to be a nurse.61
Despite the potential for neglect, abuse, or exploitation of separated children by their caregivers, it is generally in the best interests of the children to remain in family care settings. The solution is not for children to be placed in "children's homes" or "orphanages." 62 As previously noted, there are many caregivers who have provided children with the necessary care and protection; and many who would like to do so were it not for the economic hardship they face. However, because neglect, abuse, and exploitation do exist, UNHCR must continually monitor these cases to ensure that these children receive the assistance they need, with host families that are willing to meet their needs, and that these families do not neglect, abuse, or exploit the children in their care.

Neglect, Abuse, and Exploitation

She treats me bad. She discourages me. I work for her a lot. [In the morning] I sweep, get water, and clean the room. The caretaker tells me to go to the road, to sell green peas in the market. After work, I go home, fetch water, wash pots, cook. . . . She never appreciates me. I cook for the caretaker's family and myself. Sometimes she only gives me a little food. At times, when I finish cooking, she takes all the food. . . . The caretaker's children don't do anything at home. Only myself, I do all the work. Any time I work for the woman, she shouts at me, doesn't appreciate me.63
Refugee community leaders, many of whom have taken separated children into their homes, repeatedly told Human Rights Watch, "It is part of our tradition for Sierra Leonean families to take in children who are in need; but it is not realistic to expect that they will treat them as well as they treat their own children." 64 Community leaders, social workers, teachers, and separated children interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that some caregivers use separated children as forced labor, deny them the chance to go to school, and physically and verbally abuse them. Others, who may have the best of intentions, find that they do not receive enough assistance to meet the needs of the separated children in their care. It is probable that many refugee children living with their parents are subjected to similar types of abuse or neglect to varying degrees. However, UNHCR and the Guinean government have a special responsibility to care for separated children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and pursuant to UNHCR guidelines.

Labor Exploitation

Bondu L. is a twelve-year-old girl from Kailahun district who lives with a caregiver named Margaret F. in Massakundou camp. On a typical morning, Bondu L. gets up, sweeps, goes to fetch water, goes to the stream to wash Margaret F.'s children's clothes, then washes dishes from the family's breakfast. Bondu L. said she does not get any breakfast. Afterwards, she gets bulgur wheat, which she pounds and cooks. Bondu L. tries to go to school two or three times a week, but she is not able to go when there is too much domestic work to do. She told Human Rights Watch that she needs books, pens, and a school bag. She does not know how to read. In the evening, the caregiver serves the bulgur Bondu L. prepared to her family, and leaves a little in the pot for Bondu L. to eat alone. Finally, Bondu L. washes up and goes to sleep.67

Brama K. is a thirteen-year-old boy from Koidu town. He lives with his aunt and uncle and two cousins who are around his age in Massakundou. Brama K. described a typical day to Human Rights Watch.

I wash my face and go get water. Then I help my aunt with domestic work (sweeping washing dishes, fetching wood, etc.). Sometimes, if there is no money for food, I go to Kissidugou [a nearby town] to sell wood. . . . I make 500-600 GF a day for selling in the market and my aunt tells me what to buy with the money. . . . I go especially on Fridays and Saturdays, but even on school days if we need food. . . . If I am sick, my aunt still forces me to go and sell. If I refuse, then she refuses to feed me. . . . Sometimes she beats me if I say I am sick, she says I am just pretending. . . . My cousins don't come with me, they stay home with their parents.68
Abby T. is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives with her grandmother in Mangay camp. Before she came to Guinea, Abby T. was captured by RUF rebels, who held her for three weeks and raped her. She managed to escape from the rebels, traveled through the bush, and made her way to Fangamadou where she has an uncle. She then went to nearby Mangay camp, to stay with-and take care of-her grandmother and younger siblings who were already there.69 Abby T. told Human Rights Watch:
In the morning, I fetch water, sweep, and pray. Then I go to find a job for the day working for Guineans. I go towards Ouende-Kenema [a town approximately 15 km away]. Usually I pound rice. I work all day, until evening. I get no food, only 400-500 GF. Sometimes they don't even pay me until the next day, so I have to go back. I will be in the sun until evening. I feel pain all over my body. . . . I don't go to school . . . I want to work. I live with my grandmother and she is very old. I need to take care of her.70
Kumba C. is a fifteen-year-old girl in Mangay camp who has crossed the border, at the request of her caregiver, to search for food in Sierra Leone. She told Human Rights Watch:
My problem is that, since I came to Mangay, I don't have anybody. My father was killed and my mother was captured by the rebels. I am living here with a woman. We met in Fangamadou, in Guinea. I went up to her and explained myself and said, "let me stay with you." She accepted, but she treats me bad. She discourages me. I work for her a lot. She never appreciates me. . . .

One time, the caretaker's husband told me to cross the border and if I did he would buy me clothes. I did, but he didn't buy me clothes. I crossed the border twice, went to get food and bring it back. I met the rebels at one village, but they didn't see me. The road is not safe. The rebels are sometimes there in the bush.71

A refugee social worker in Mangay camp admitted to Human Rights Watch that he does not have the means to prevent this dangerous practice.
When there is no food, they go across the border. The caretakers ask us for help, but we don't get help from the head office, so there is nothing we can do. . . . Caretakers expect food to support the separated children. But they find that UNHCR does not come with food. The child then becomes a burden. Then they don't get to go to school, they have to go work to get money. Their health conditions are very poor.72

Another social worker told Human Rights Watch "Some [separated children] go to school, but when the going gets rough, [the caregivers] prefer to send them across the border." 73

Physical and Psychological Abuse

Bondu L., the twelve-year-old girl who lives with a caregiver named Margaret F. in Massakundou, was both forced to work and regularly beaten. She said that Margaret F. beat her with a stick on her back two days before she spoke with Human Rights Watch because she "took too long" gathering firewood. Bondu L. explained to Human Rights Watch, "Margaret F. sometimes gets mad. If I don't work, she starves me. She also flogs me with a stick, over all parts of the body." 74

Human Rights Watch also found that some caregivers frequently verbally abuse separated children in their care. Most commonly, children said that their caregivers taunted them with the fact that they have been separated from their parents.

Thamba M., a fifteen-year-old boy from Kangama in Kono District, lives with a woman named Finda A. in Massakundou camp. When the RUF rebels came to his village in Sierra Leone, he and his parents fled to the bush to hide. But the rebels found them and killed his parents. Only he managed to escape. Thamba M. told Human Rights Watch:

My caretaker is sometimes nice, but sometimes she is cruel. One nice thing is that sometimes she will clean or do my laundry. But she makes me work. . . . And she beats me. For example, if I refuse to go fetch wood or if I come home late. . . . The last time she beat me was yesterday. She used a cane and hit my hands and arms. She doesn't beat her own kids . . . Also, she shouts at me sometimes. She yells, "you don't have a mother." 75
Mameh G. is a nine-year-old girl in Massakundou camp, originally from Makeni. She lost her parents when the RUF rebels attacked her family's hiding place outside of Makeni-her parents fled in a panic and she was left alone. Mameh G. told Human Rights Watch:
My caretaker gets mad at me sometimes. . . . If I stay at the water pump for too long, my caretaker will get mad and beat me. . . . The last time she beat me was yesterday. She was mad because I went out to the bush to fetch wood and I stayed out too late. . . . She rarely beats her own children. She beats me more. Also, when she gets mad at me she shouts, "you aren't my daughter." 76
Human Rights Watch also documented several cases of sexual abuse of separated children by members of their host families, as well as economic exploitation of girls-whereby girls feel coerced to work as child prostitutes in order to support themselves and sometimes their families. The issue of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls is discussed separately below.

Several children-including Kumba C., Bondu L., and Brama K., whose stories are described above-told Human Rights Watch that they are only permitted to eat once per day while members of the caregivers' families, like most refugees in Guinea, eat twice. Some separated children also said that they are only given bulgur wheat to eat, whereas the caregivers' families eat rice, Sierra Leoneans' customary staple. In the case of ten-year-old Ami in Fangamadou, her host family made her feel bad about eating at all. She told Human Rights Watch, "When the caretaker's kids eat, they shout at me. When I take food they get mad, so I can only take a little bit. They say, `I don't know why you were mixed with me to shorten our food.'" 77

Several social workers told Human Rights Watch that some caregivers will take assistance earmarked for the separated children-including food, medicine, and clothing- and use it for their own families. A nun in Gueckedou town has taken in more than twenty separated children whose needs were not being met by their caregivers, and raises money from private sources to finance her operations. She described what happened to six children before she took them to live with her. Their mother was killed in Sierra Leone and their father was killed in an attack on a refugee settlement near Toumandou in Guinea:

Their uncle took them from Toumandou. Only he didn't care for them-he took their belongings and abandoned them. I saw them and found a family to take care of them. I gave the family some food and medicine for the children each week. I returned each week to check up on them and it was clear to me that the family was not giving the children any aid or care. Two of them were very sick, on the verge of death. One of them [a seventh sibling] died, and another remained seriously ill. The family didn't give them the medicine I brought and they were not being fed enough. Finally, I had to take the children to live with me.78
Denial of Education The protracted nature of the conflict in Sierra Leone has had a profound impact on the education of Sierra Leonean children, with few receiving uninterrupted schooling due to insecurity, unrest, and displacement. A teacher in Massakundou camp explained to Human Rights Watch:
Lots of children are not going to school. It is even worse because many people in this camp were internally displaced within Sierra Leone during the first years of the war [which has been going on since 1991]. So there is more illiteracy as many did not go to school even in Sierra Leone. In addition, many children have been traumatized by the war and that also interferes with their learning.80
Many separated children told Human Rights Watch that, although they try to go to school in the camps, they are unable to go on a regular basis because they have work to do. Sahr D. is a fourteen-year-old boy in Massakundou camp. He told Human Rights Watch that he attends school regularly and is in Class III, but he cannot read his own name. He explained:
Some days, there is work to do: fetching wood, washing clothes. Sometimes, after that, it is too late to go to school. . . . The caretaker's children work, too. But they don't have to work every day, like I do. . . . When I grow up, I want to be a carpenter. But I can't go for training to be a carpenter. . . . My caretaker says that, if I went for training, there would be no one left to do the domestic work in the house.81
Christiana J., a twelve-year-old girl who spends her days doing domestic labor for her host family, told Human Rights Watch a similar story. "I want to go to school," she said, "but the caretaker doesn't allow me."82

Another problem is the very limited funding available for programs targeting adolescents. Many camps do not have secondary schools. Children in these camps wishing to attend secondary school must travel to a nearby village, often significant distances away, and pay school fees. Because of language barriers, English speaking Sierra Leonean refugees would have difficulty attending Guinean schools, which are taught in French. In addition, due to budgetary constraints in 1999, UNHCR was forced to eliminate almost all vocational training programs for the refugees.83 Another problem is that it can be difficult for adolescents lacking primary education to sit in class together with much younger children.

Teachers and other community leaders have remarked that separated girls, in particular, are pulled out of school at age ten to do domestic work. In Kundou-Lengo-Bengo, for example, out of 803 students, approximately 59 percent (472) are boys and approximately 41 percent (331) are girls. However, these percentages do not accurately depict the severity of gender discrepancies as few girls stay in school long enough to reach higher grades. Teachers in the camp explained to Human Rights Watch, "[there are less girls in school] because parents know that girls are more useful in the homes, more careful with small children. They work in the home, sometimes go out for food, or do child care when the mother goes out for food." 84

This is a common phenomenon in many countries, including Guinea and Sierra Leone. UNICEF has reported that, as of April 1998, 48 percent of all children were enrolled in primary school in Guinea (63 percent boys, 34 percent girls), and 50 percent in Sierra Leone (59 percent boys, 41 percent girls). However, 18 percent of boys, compared to only 6 percent of girls, were enrolled in secondary school in Guinea; and 22 percent of boys, compared to 13 percent of girls, were enrolled in secondary school in Sierra Leone.85

Inability to Leave

Abu B., a twelve-year-old boy from Koidu town, stays with a family he followed to Guinea from Sierra Leone. He, like other many separated children in Guinea, told Human Rights Watch that he feels he has no choice but to remain with an abusive caregiver who does not meet his needs.
My caretaker is not nice. She doesn't let her daughter work, she makes me do everything . . . She beats me if I refuse to work. Sometimes she beats me for no reason. . . . I want to go to school because I want to be a doctor when I grow up. . . . Sometimes, I don't go to school, though, because the caretaker tells me to sell wood. I can't refuse because I am staying with her.87
Mamusu P., a ten-year-old girl, small for her age, lives in Massakundou camp and comes from Koidu town. She stays with a caregiver who forces her to toil all day, only allows her to attend school one day a week, and beats her. Mamusu P. told Human Rights Watch that the caregiver's husband sexually molested her. Mamusu P. has an aunt and a sister who also live in Mangay camp, but told Human Rights Watch she would be afraid to try to leave to go stay with one of them because the caregiver threatened her.
I won't try to go live with my aunt, because the caretaker said if I try to leave, she will beat me. She doesn't want me to leave because I do the domestic work. . . . What I really want is to stay with my sister. I'm afraid that man will try to touch me again if I stay with the caretaker.88
During the interview, the social worker who was translating for Human Rights Watch invited Mamusu P. to come live with her family, but Mamusu P. said she couldn't leave her caregiver.

The Role of UNHCR

It is essential to know which children are unaccompanied as children who are not being cared for by their families face a high risk of not receiving proper protection and care. While unaccompanied minors are usually taken care of by other refugees, experience shows that physical and developmental needs are not always met. It is essential that unaccompanied minors be identified as soon as possible because 1) these children require monitoring to make sure that their needs are being met, and 2) tracing for parents and other relatives must begin immediately.89
It may be very difficult to obtain reliable information about what goes on within families or communities. Often, such information reaches field staff as a result of other activities-for example, needs assessments for income generating projects or family reunification processing. Close cooperation between protection and community services staff is necessary, both in the identification of abuse and in deciding on the most appropriate intervention.90
Human Rights Watch is concerned that UNHCR has not accorded protection of separated children in Guinea the priority it merits. Human Rights Watch met with many people, ranging from social workers who monitor separated children on a regular basis to senior protection and management staff in UNHCR, who seemed genuinely shocked to learn of abuses against separated children. In addition, social workers told Human Rights Watch that they had had little or no training in monitoring the care and protection of separated children and were surprised to learn that guidelines on refugee children, which they had never seen, existed.

In Guinea, UNHCR has largely delegated its child protection functions to its NGO implementing partners. Two local NGOs in Guinea, Service Chretien d'Animation pour le Developpement des OEuvres Sociales et du Secours (Secados) and CREA, maintain a network of paid refugee social workers in every camp, some of whom have been assigned to work with separated children.91 However, as is described in detail below, some social workers whom Human Rights Watch met claimed they had not received complete instructions from their supervisors. Many had received little or no training and, as noted above, many were not even aware that UNHCR had guidelines on separated children or refugee children. In addition, social workers in Boudou camp told Human Rights Watch that they had not been paid for over two months and had not received funds or materials necessary to build an office for their work. In an effort to alleviate some of these shortcomings, UNHCR provided funding for an international NGO, IRC, to start a new program for separated children in 1999.

Under UNHCR guidelines as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, however, responsibility for protection of separated children falls squarely on UNHCR and on the Guinean government. The following sections discuss shortcomings in the identification of separated children, monitoring of their care, and response to cases of abuse.


Community services officers at UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that they, together with Secados and CREA, continually seek to identify separated children. However, despite the wide discrepancy between registered and projected figures, this does not appear to be the case in practice. In fact, several social workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that identification of additional separated children did not constitute part of their job description.96 Social workers in five camps introduced Human Rights Watch to children they knew to be separated children, although many of these children were not on their registration lists. UNHCR decided not to use the February 1999 census as a means of identifying separated children but had not made other plans to address the large discrepancy in numbers.97 Although there were valid reasons for not using the census, UNHCR failed to take other necessary steps. Furthermore, as noted above, many separated children and other refugees categorized as vulnerable who had originally been registered were actually removed from registration lists as a result of the census and, consequently, have not received any assistance for months.

UNHCR community service officers and social workers told Human Rights Watch that they are reluctant to register more separated children because they are concerned that families might lie, claiming that their own children are separated children in an effort to gain more assistance, for example extra clothing.98 However, it appears that this attitude has led to many children falling through the cracks.

Adama H. cares for two separated children in Massakundou camp as well as six of her own children. Her separated children call her "auntie" although they are not related. Adama H. told Human Rights Watch:

When we arrived in Guinea, I registered one of the children with CREA. I couldn't register the other one, because she had been admitted to the hospital in nearby Kissidugou town. A social worker came once and gave me a mat, two pieces of clothes, and one soap for the boy whom I registered. One other time, a supply came for vulnerables: four kg of rice, two kg of beans, and ½ liter of oil.

By the time the other child came from the hospital, the social workers told me that all the registration slips had been sent to Geneva already. They said I would have to wait for the next registration, but they did not say when that would be. I have never received any assistance for this girl.99

Social workers in Massakundou camp told Human Rights Watch that, as far as they knew, there would not be another round of registration.100

The consequences of failure to register are serious for the children. It means that no one will monitor their care or intervene on their behalf in case of abuse, and that it will be nearly impossible for them to be reunited with their families. In the case of Adama H.'s separated children, the unregistered girl, a thirteen-year-old, told Human Rights Watch she works as a child prostitute with three different men a day because she does not have enough food to eat.101


The quality of their care arrangements should be assessed and monitored . . . Intervention: if children are suspected of being abused, neglected or exploited, the situation must be investigated. . . . For example, when children are used as domestic servants, their developmental needs and needs for affection may be at risk.102
The guidelines explicitly direct UNHCR staff to "protect [all] refugee children from employment that is likely to be hazardous to their health or to interfere with their education and development." 103 However, aside from warning that domestic labor exploitation can be hazardous, the guidelines fail to discuss how to monitor for abuse, what indicators of abuse are, or how to respond. The Action for the Rights of the Child training program, discussed above, is in the process of developing a training module on exploitation of refugee children. When the training program is implemented, this should be an important supplement to the guidelines on refugee children, although it focuses primarily on labor and sexual exploitation rather than other forms of abuse.

Response to abuse
When any abuse of children, including separated children, is discovered, the guidelines on refugee children instruct UNHCR staff to:

Make every effort to protect refugee children from abuse . . . Evidence of torture, physical and sexual assault, abduction and similar violations of the safety and liberty of refugee children call for extraordinary measures. Spare no effort to collect all the relevant facts, including corroborative evidence and identification of the culprits with a view to their apprehension. Retain legal counselors and ensure that offenders are prosecuted. Take measures which may prevent further incidence of such abuse.104
The guidelines also note that "an alternative placement may have to be arranged" for separated children if abuse, neglect, or exploitation is suspected.105

However, in practice, even when social workers do detect mistreatment of separated children, their response is generally insufficient. Refugee social workers have few resources at their disposal and have seldom been able to do more than provide occasional assistance to the child or the family. In some instances, social workers requested assistance for the child from their head office, but never received a response. Concerned social workers have even been known to offer abused or neglected children food from their own families' rations.106 Most frequently, social workers told Human Rights Watch that, if maltreatment is suspected, they would approach the caregiver and try to "encourage" him or her to take better care of the child-essentially by attempting to convince them to sympathize with the child's plight.

In some instances, severe cases of abuse of separated children have been reported to the refugee camp chairman. However, in most cases, little has been done in response, even when camp chairmen have attempted to intervene.

Just yesterday, I dealt with an abused [separated child] who was beaten by his caretaker. I spoke to the caretaker, and tried to tell him that he has to take better care of the child. I also went and got some clothes for the child, but the caretaker gave them to his own children.107
Abu B., a twelve year old boy in Massakundou camp, stated that he once reported to a CREA social worker about his caregiver who beat him regularly, and the social worker promised to report it to the camp chairman. However, Abu B. had not been informed if his complaint was reported or if any action had been taken in response.108

Human Rights Watch field research did not reveal any cases of abuse of a separated child by a caregiver in which the Guinean authorities had intervened.

Alternative placement has rarely been arranged for separated children in Guinea. In one case, UNHCR conducted a search for the parents of a fifteen-year-old separated child who had been raped by her uncle in February 1999. As a result, they were able to remove her from her uncle's care and reunify her with her parents in another refugee camp. According to a UNHCR officer, however, social workers, camp leadership, and UNHCR had failed to heed repeated warnings that the uncle was a "risk" and "had his eye" on the girl. No intervention was made to remove her from the abusive household until after the rape was reported.109

Family Tracing

I'm here thinking of my family. Here I don't know if they are alive or not. That's what I have at heart to tell you.110
According to UNHCR's guidelines on refugee children, family tracing and reunification are a primary goal in dealing with separated children.
Tracing for parents or other relatives is essential. Begin tracing as early as possible. In addition to the possibility of family reunion, it can be very important for a child to know that someone is looking for his or her parents. Tracing will depend upon thorough documentation of the child's history, and often upon close cooperation across borders. Coordinate tracing efforts with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example by transmitting a copy of any registration / tracing request. This may increase the chances of locating relatives and avoid duplication of efforts.111
Human Rights Watch is concerned that if, as discussed above, many separated children have not been identified or registered as separated children, then no efforts can be made to trace their families. Children who are living with extended family members have a right to tracing and reunification with their parents just as those with unrelated caregivers do.

Various organizations have been involved in tracing the families of Sierra Leonean separated children-including UNHCR, Secados, CREA, and IRC in Guinea and UNICEF and the ICRC in Sierra Leone. IRC, with funding from UNHCR, was planning to begin an aggressive tracing program in Guinea in March 1999, focusing on children under the age of five. Tracing efforts in Guinea, however, have not been systematically coordinated with efforts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, although parents are spread out in all three countries and, according to UNICEF, most of the parents are still in Sierra Leone. UNICEF, for example, was working to trace the families of separated children inside Sierra Leone but was not doing so in Guinea. The ICRC, likewise, did not play an active role in tracing in Guinea, although its Red Cross Message Network (RCM) in Sierra Leone could be an important source of locating lost family members.112 It should be noted that, since December 1998, the security situation in Sierra Leone has made it extremely difficult for aid workers to conduct family tracing activities in the country.
UNHCR, UNICEF, members of the International Save the Children Alliance, IRC, and other international agencies are in the process of establishing a regional database to facilitate family reunification in West Africa. However, it has proven difficult to integrate different existing systems that are not compatible with one another. The project, for which planning began in July 1997, has been slow to get off the ground and is not yet operational.

48 Human Rights Watch interview, fourteen-year-old boy, Fangamadou camp, February 24, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, ten-year-old girl, Fangamadou camp, February 24, 1999.

See also articles 23 (refugee children) and 25 (separation from parents) of the African Charter.

Article 2, Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Article 19, Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Article 15, African Charter.

Article 16, African Charter.

55 To complicate matters, UNHCR staff in Guinea refer only to children living with extended family members as "separated children." However, this distinction in terminology is not entirely correct, nor is it useful. All children not with their parents, whether they are living with a grandparent or with a total stranger, are considered separated children and all of these are entitled to special protection. Unaccompanied minors are a subset of separated children: the groups are not mutually exclusive.

UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 121.

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with UNHCR officer, Geneva, March 26, 1999.

58 As noted below, the figure of 480 registered unaccompanied minors grossly underrepresents of the number of unaccompanied minors, and is an even less accurate reflection of the probable number of separated children.

Human Rights Watch interview with twelve-year-old boy, Mangay camp, February 19, 1999.

60 A campaign of terror designed by the RUF in February 1998 to loot, destroy, or kill anything in their path.

Human Rights Watch interview, Fangamadou camp, February 24, 1999.

62 UNHCR guidelines recommend that group care should only be considered "where family placements are not possible," and should be only an interim measure, preferably in small groups. UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 127.

Human Rights Watch interview with fifteen-year-old-girl, Mangay camp, February 19, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Fangamadou camp, February 24, 1999.

Domestic labor can be particularly hazardous for children. Human Rights Watch research in Guinea as well as other countries has revealed that child domestic labor is often performed under abusive conditions. Children are frequently required to toil from early morning to late night, and to be on call twenty-four hours a day. While they perform chores that might not normally be hazardous, the long hours exacerbate the negative impact the labor has on the child's well-being. Child domestic servants, particularly girls, are at a high risk of physical abuse and sexual exploitation from their employers. Separated children in Guinea, like child domestic servants in other countries, are rarely compensated for their labor. In addition, child domestic servitude can hamper the child's long-term development. The subservient attitudes required by employers or, in the case of separated children in Guinea, caregivers, can lead to low self-esteem-particularly when other children in the household are treated differently, for example being permitted to go to school.

Pounding rice entails using a heavy wooden pole, often much taller than the child, and pounding rice in a wooden bowl repeatedly.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Mangay is located approximately one kilometer from Fangamadou.

Human Rights Watch interview, Mangay camp, February 19, 1999.

71 Human Rights Watch interview, Mangay camp, February 19, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Mangay camp, February 19, 1999

Human Rights Watch interview, Fangamadou camp, February 18, 1999

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

75 Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Fangamadou camp, February 24, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Gueckedou, March 4, 1999.

79 Approximately 35 percent of all eligible children were enrolled in primary school in Guinea in 1997. The ratio is considerably smaller for secondary schools. Education International, Barometer on Human and Trade Rights in the Education Sector, p. 55.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

The only funding for vocational training in the camps is as part of the Victims of Violence program, which is earmarked for victims of sexual abuse and mutilation by the rebels in Sierra Leone. Human Rights Watch interviews, Gueckedou, February 18, 1999, March 2, 1999.

84 Human Rights Watch interview with teachers in Kundou-Lengo-Bengo camp, February 23, 1999. and

Human Rights Watch interview, Fangamadou camp, February 24, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

89 UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 122.

UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 84.

Other social workers are assigned to work with the elderly or victims of sexual abuse.

92 UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 124.

Furthermore, it is likely that there could be even more separated children in Sierra Leonean camps in Guinea than in other refugee situations for two reasons. First, an estimated 65 percent of the refugees are children, as compared to 52 percent worldwide in refugee populations. Second, due to the horrific nature of the conflict in Sierra Leone, more children than usual were separated from their parents.

As has been noted above, separated children is a broad term which applies to all children who have been separated from their parents. Unaccompanied minors, who generally live with unrelated families, are a subset of separated children.

For example, many separated children begin to call their caregever's "auntie" out of respect so social workers assume that they are related when they are not. Furthermore, as has been noted above, children with extended family members are often neglected or mistreated just as those with unrelated caregivers are.

Human Rights Watch interviews, Mangay camp, March 3, 1999; Fangamadou camp, February 20, 1999; and Boudou camp, February 17, 1999.

The guidelines on refugee children provide, "During registration, families should be asked if they are caring for children other than their own, have children from whom they are separated, know of families who have missing children, or know of children who are separated from their families." UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 125. UNHCR staff told Human Rights Watch that the reason they did not attempt to use the census to do this was because they felt that community services officers were better qualified than Guinean census-takers who speak a different language and have not been trained in dealing with vulnerables. Human Rights Watch interviews, February 27, 1999, February 16, 1999.

Refugee social workers and international aid workers noted that in Guinea, as well as in other refugee situations, refugees have been known to claim their children are separated children or even give their children up so that the children could receive additional assistance. Human Rights Watch interviews, Fangamadou, February 20, 1999; Gueckedou, March 4, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 4, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 4, 1999.

UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 127 (emphasis in original).

UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 84, citing article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 84 (emphasis added).

UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 127. In this section, the guidelines explicitly refer to articles 19 and 20 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, Massakundou camp, March 3, 1999.

109 Human Rights Watch interview, Gueckedou, February 18, 1999.

Human Rights Watch interview, twelve-year-old boy, Mangay camp, February 19, 1999.

UNHCR, Refugee Children, p. 128.

In 1999, however, the ICRC has not yet been able to operate the RCM in Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leonean government expelled the ICRC from the country in January 1999 and did not allow it to return until April. Since then, the ICRC has only been able to conduct limited functions due to the poor security situation in much of the country and has not been able to operate the RCM program. As of July 1999, the ICRC could not accept messages from refugees in Guinea for family members in Sierra Leone because it does not have the capacity to deliver them.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page