Hidden children: refugee fostering in Guinea International Rescue Committee, host country foster care project in Guinea.

Author:Moller, Catherine


One of the most vulnerable yet overlooked groups within situations of forced migration is that of refugee children who have been separated from their families as a result of armed conflict and subsequently absorbed by foster families in the countries to which they have fled. Based on extensive field-based research, this paper presents protection problems and poses solutions for such refugee children in Guinea, West Africa, including their access to rights such as family tracing; cultural and linguistic continuity; and education, health, and well-being. The paper also considers long-term integration options for refugee children living in Guinean foster families. The paper concludes by analyzing the use of a human rights framework to alleviate human suffering in this particular situation of forced migration.

  1. Introduction

    During the rebel attack in Freetown [Sierra Leone], my mother was running with me and the rebels shot her in her head and she died. I didn't know where my father and brother were. Then, I saw people running and I followed them and we came to Guinea. When we came to Forecariah, I was suffering, begging people for food. When I saw this mother [current foster mother], I ... explained to her that I had nobody there to take care of me and I asked her to take me along and she accepted. --Mohamed Kamara, age 9, refugee from Sierra Leone (1) One of the most vulnerable yet overlooked groups within situations of forced migration is that of refugee children who have been separated from their families as a result of armed conflict. (2) This is especially true for those children who are subsequently absorbed by foster families in the countries to which they have fled. Their human rights and the standards for their care are detailed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, as well as Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care, which is published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). (3) But how do these established rights and standards actually improve the lives of these children?

    The civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia have led to the exodus of more than five hundred thousand refugees to Guinea since 1989. As indicated by the story of Mohamed Kamara, armed attacks separate refugee children from their parents, leaving them vulnerable and alone in Guinea. Refugee families in and around refugee camps eventually take most of these "separated" children into informal foster care arrangements. Other separated refugee children are cared for by Guinean families or survive on their own in the streets of Guinean towns and villages. Some of these children are well taken care of by their foster parents, but others have been trafficked for domestic or manual labour, sexually exploited, or forcibly recruited into militia groups. (4) Few of these separated refugee children are actually orphans, and many have parents or family members who are looking for them. It is estimated that there are from ten thousand to twenty-five thousand separated refugee children in Guinea today. (5)

    Around the world, separated refugee children who are absorbed into host-country foster families--such as Sierra Leonean children in Guinean families--face a distinctive set of short- and long-term protection problems. These problems have hitherto lacked adequate attention by the international community because such children are usually undocumented, not in refugee camps, and randomly dispersed throughout large areas. They are "hidden" in a sense and cannot benefit from the services of international organizations and governments.

    Access to separated refugee children in host country foster families is also problematized by the personal and political sensitivities surrounding these fostering arrangements: sometimes host country foster families are reluctant to declare the presence of refugee children in their care, and governments may be hesitant to allow aid organizations to assist refugees who are outside of officially designated areas. As in other situations concerning separated refugee children in host country foster homes, little is known about how many Sierra Leonean refugee children are in Guinean foster families, how these children came to be there, and the extent to which they endure human rights violations.

    In early 2001, the International Rescue Committee launched a research project to better protect separated refugee children in host-country foster families, taking Guinea, West Africa, as a case study. IRC, an international humanitarian relief organization, provides family tracing and other services to separated refugee children around the world, and has worked in Guinea since 1991. This paper presents the preliminary findings of IRC's ongoing research, which is a part of a larger consortium of research projects made possible by the Social Science Research Council's Forced Migration and Human Rights Project with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Forced Migration and Human Rights Project will be publishing the final results of its research projects later this year.

    This paper details protection problems faced by separated refugee children from Sierra Leone who are living with foster families in Guinea; compares data collected from Guinean foster families with Sierra Leonean refugee foster families; and suggests interventions aimed at improving the protection environment for these children. The paper concludes with an analysis of using a human rights framework to alleviate human suffering in this particular situation of forced migration.

    Data collected includes focus group discussions with Guinean and refugee communities and interviews with United Nations officials, Guinean government representatives, Guinean non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international humanitarian assistance workers. One hundred fifty-eight in-depth household interviews were conducted with 34 Guinean foster parents, 24 Sierra Leonean refugee foster parents, and 101 Sierra Leonean refugee children whose average age was eleven. Only homes in which both natural children and foster children resided were included in the study in order to allow for comparison in treatment. All of the foster households were poor, the average size was eleven people, and nearly all supported themselves with informal-sector work activities. The length of time a foster child had been in a foster home ranged from a few months to over a decade, and the average amount of time was about three and a half years.

    The research was limited to families living in Conakry, the capital city, due to recent political and military instability in Guinea. Starting in September 2001, a series of regionally based rebel attacks destabilized the country, killed hundreds, and displaced countless civilians and refugees, many of whom fled to Conakry. Due to this violence as well as widespread anti-refugee sentiment, thousands of refugees were rounded up and harassed, and over thirty-five thousand refugees spontaneously returned to Sierra Leone where their safety was not assured. (6) Between 10 and 15 per cent of the refugee children we interviewed in Conakry had been separated from their previous caregivers and found themselves in foster care situations with new families as a result of this recent instability. (7) It should be noted that information gathered in an urban environment differs from that which could be collected in the countryside or in a refugee camp, where the majority of separated refugee children actually live. Data collection in such non-urban environments will be a focus of the continuing research in the future.

  2. Protection Problems and Interventions

    We found in our research that nearly all foster parents in both Guinean and Sierra Leonean foster families spoke fondly of their foster children and said they were willing to care for them for years to come. Yet when human rights standards for separated refugee children are applied, it is clear that these children face a host of human rights problems. In the discussion below, data from focus group discussions and household interviews illustrates the children's access to various rights such as family tracing and documentation; cultural and linguistic continuity; and standards for interim care like education, health, and well-being. Suggested interventions--also based on human rights standards--are presented as well. The question of longterm integration for separated refugee children fostered in Guinean homes is taken up in Part 3.

    Family Tracing and Documentation

    As per the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Guinea is a signatory, every child has the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents, and governments must assist in tracing and reunification efforts (articles 7, 10, 20 and 22). Similar rights are enumerated in articles 13 and 15 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, to which Guinea is also a signatory. When asked, most of the refugee children in our household survey indicated that they would like some sort of family tracing services.

    However, identifying and documenting these children so that they can be provided with such services is a challenging task. It is expensive and time-consuming, and current assistance commitments from donor governments are insufficient to support the needed response. Moreover, foster families are sometimes reluctant to declare the presence of their charges--they may fear that they will be punished or shamed for taking in a refugee child or blamed for not looking for the natural parents. They may...

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