Tanzania: responding to the needs of vulnerable children from Burundi

The influx of Burundians seeking refuge in Tanzania since the unrest in their own country began is enormous – we’re looking at a figure above 80,000, more than half, children. And of those children, over 952 are unaccompanied by any known adult – their parents or a guardian – and 1,732 have been separated from their parents or other family members. We classify them as ‘unaccompanied’ or ‘separated’ to distinguish between circumstances; 4 per cent of them are under five.

It’s challenging dealing with an emergency that affects so many children. It’s really hard to ascertain which children need the most urgent help when – given the trauma that they’ve all endured, given how afraid they are and how disorientated – they all need help. That’s why the rapid identification and registration of children at risk is so vital: understanding how old they are and why they’ve arrived alone/without their parents or primary caregivers helps us to identify which children are most vulnerable. And it’s crucial that we record children’s details and stories as quickly as possible before the detail is lost.

Life in a refugee camp is very tough – especially in a crisis situation when huge numbers of people need to be accommodated in mass shelters. In this context of congestion and confusion children can be victims of exploitation: they may be exposed to abuse, emotional, physical or sexual, or suffer ill health.

Burundian adults attend a session to identify and train potential foster parents in the Nyarugusu refugee camp.
Burundian adults attend a session to identify and train potential foster parents in the Nyarugusu refugee camp. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1724/Beechey

I’ve been a Child Protection Specialist with UNICEF for three years and it’s my job to ensure that vulnerable children – whether recorded as unaccompanied, separated or presenting with other special protection needs – get access to the relevant services, and quickly. One of the ways in which we do this is to link vulnerable children with able, willing adults who can help them meet their basic needs and protect them from harm.

We identify foster parents in the community and support them with training – educating them as to the needs of vulnerable children. We coach them in ‘parenting’, helping them to understand what fostering involves, and similarly we engage children who need fostering to make sure they understand the situation and are comfortable with it. It’s all about managing a child’s wellbeing and safety and at the same time, managing expectations.

Fostering can be especially tricky when adolescents are concerned. At 16 or 17 many don’t want to be fostered and this can create difficulties as they often aren’t able to cope on their own. Some of them are even caregivers themselves, taking care of their siblings as heads of their household. In these situations, we try to counsel them, to help them understand the importance of some support. In addition to foster parents, we also train caregivers to support those children who have assumed caregiving responsibility in the absence of their parents.

A community volunteer registers children for a new playground in the Nyarugusu camp.
A community volunteer registers children for a new playground in the Nyarugusu camp. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1721/Beechey

We’re supported in our work by an able team of government Social Welfare officers who are very hands on and have the appropriate training and experience to engage with children. They are able to develop trusting relationships with children so that we can draw the necessary background information from a child to help put the right support services in place. All the humanitarian agencies collaborate in this, for example, children who have been exposed to gender-based violence are referred to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), children with health issues to the health sector.

It’s a time-consuming process because managing things like this can’t be rushed – it’s such a delicate process, you’re dealing with incredibly fragile, traumatized children. In the first month of the crisis, 1,956 unaccompanied and separated children had been identified but the services had only reached 34 per cent of them.

We have solid systems in place, but no two children are the same. The only thing they have in common is the tragedy of their experiences – they all need to be treated on a sensitive individual basis. That’s why working together is so crucial. It’s all about creating a chain that interlinks so that we all understand how different cases are being managed and by whom, all in an effort to prevent vulnerable children from falling through gaps.

Evans Mori is a Child Protection Specialist working with UNICEF Tanzania

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