This year marks the 30th anniversary of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 and ratified by more countries than any other human rights treaty in history. The 42 articles of the convention enshrine the right of every child to education, food, water and healthcare and to protection from violence, abuse and neglect. For 35 million children across the Middle East and North Africa, however, the convention is proving worthless. According to Unicef, the UN’s children’s fund, the region’s wars, health epidemics and natural disasters now amount to the world’s greatest concentration of human suffering. Of the “staggering” 71 million people in dire need of assistance in Mena, says Unicef, 35 million – about the population of Tokyo, the world’s most populous city – are children. In countries from Syria and Yemen to Palestine and Iraq, they are the victims of threats ranging from malnutrition, injury and death to displacement, forced recruitment as soldiers and human shields and underage marriage. In places like Sudan, natural disasters and disease add to the threat to safety.
Either alone or with their parents, vast numbers of children risk all in search of a better life. According to Desperate Journeys, a report published this week by the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5,400 unaccompanied children were among the 139,300 refugees and migrants from a dozen different countries who made it to Europe by land and sea in 2018. One in five of the 2,411 who died in the attempt were children.
In camps across the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe, children are enduring extreme conditions, lacking food, medicine and suitable shelter. Those governments responsible for such shameful circumstances, each one of which is a signatory to the convention, appear to have forgotten that Article 22 states it is their responsibility to ensure that refugee children, wherever they are from, should be protected by the rights set out in the accord. Save the Children estimates that around the world, more children than ever before are exposed to conflict and violence. The charity says that at least 357 million, or one in six of all the world's children, are experiencing things that no child ever should. For many such children, education is a forgotten luxury – in Syria, for example, more than two million have none. What lessons is life teaching this lost generation, deprived of the innocence of childhood and exposed to the very worst of human nature?
Unicef was created in 1946 to bring emergency aid to the millions of children suffering in the wake of the Second World War. The fact that, 73 years later, there has never been a more overwhelming need for its services is a stark indictment of a world that has broken every promise it has made to its children.