Great Lakes: IRIN Special Feature - Unaccompanied Children, 7/30/97

Great Lakes: IRIN Special Feature - Unaccompanied Children, 7/30/97


Department of Humanitarian Affairs

Integrated Regional Information Network

for the Great Lakes

Tel: +254 2 622147

Fax: +254 2 622129


Great Lakes: IRIN Special Feature - Unaccompanied Children. July 30 1997

1. During the recent repatriation from eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Rwanda, more than 6,000 unaccompanied children (UACs) were repatriated. Eight-eight percent of them were re-unified within weeks of returning. This very positive result is only part of an important programme for UACs in the Great Lakes region since the Rwandan crisis of 1994. This report attempts to give a definition of who UACs are and to sketch the outline of UAC programmes since 1994. It concentrates on Rwandan UACs, inside Rwanda and in the neighbouring countries, but does not cover UAC programmes in other Great Lakes countries for children of those countries.


2. UNICEF defines a UAC as a child under 18 years of age, unaccompanied by a parent, a member of the extended family, or by a guardian recognized by law or custom. For the ICRC, a UAC is under 16. A UAC can be an orphan, but also could be a minor who is lost, abandonned, kidnapped, on the run. In situations of armed conflict, a child recruited, forcibly or otherwise into the military would be classified as a UAC. Even when a child in placed in a foster family, an institution, or lives in a child-headed family, he or she remains a UAC. Because of their specific needs in term of protection and assistance, UACs are part of "vulnerable groups", and are targeted with special programmes by humanitarian organizations.

3. Rwandan UACs were mostly separated from their families during the genocide and war in Rwanda (April-July 1994) as well as during the exodus towards neighbouring Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. Separations have also happened since the beginning of the war in Zaire and the dispersal in October-November 1996 of the refugee camps at Uvira, Bukavu and Goma, but also took place at the time of the Kibeho incident (April 1995), the forced repatriation from Bukavu (August 1995), the massive repatriations from Burundi (July 1996) and Tanzania (December 1996). Almost all of the UACs most recently repatriated from eastern DRC are UACs recently separated from their families, during the flight into the forests of DRC.


4. Any conflict or crisis can cause the separation of children from their parents, and consequently the humanitarian community has regularly had to deal with this issue. Starting with experiences at the end of the Second World War, assistance programmes have been tailored for this specific group. The goal of UAC programmes is to reunify the child with his or her family. Four phases are usually undertaken: identification, documentation, tracing and reunification. (1)

5. Identification consists firstly of finding the UAC: in a conflict situation this can be difficult as the UAC may not be immediately "visible". Teams may be sent into communities to deal with the reticence of people looking after UACs who wish to protect them and do not declare them or who may want to keep the child to exploit him or her. Some "triage" is performed to distinguish between real UACs and those who are declaring UACs only get benefits. Information campaigns on the existence of UAC programmes are mounted to advertise the existence and methods of UAC tracing programmes.

6. Documentation is based on discussions held with the UAC to try and collect useful information on the family. Depending on the circumstances, the "investigation" may include details on the family, the place where the child currently is, life before separation (where they lived, address and physical description of the area, school, important events in his/her life, medical records) and the story of the separation itself. A photo may be attached to the documentation. Documentation is kept up to date as the child's status changes (placed in a foster family, for example), or the address changes.

7. The method of tracing depends mainly on the situation: one or more complementary techniques may be employed (detailed later in this report) including tracing case by case, mass tracing, through the media, using photographs, databases or on the ground with the child. A system of verification is common to all, so that the protection of the child is guaranteed. This is achieved by exchanging information between the UAC and the family, and an exchange of photos, official documentation for the adult taking charge to sign and an endorsement from the community.

8. Reunification with the biological parents is the best option but reunification with the extended family is also a solution. This is not done until the host family and the child are prepared and have agreed, whatever the age of the child. Once the child is reunified, follow-up visits are made to evaluate the relations between the child and the family, and, particularly if the family is a foster family, to give advice and counselling. Time pays a important role in all stages of the programme - the chances of reunification are better if the child is quickly identified and the tracing can take place soon after separation.

9. As the tracing takes place, an appropriate temporary system of care is set up for the child to take care of his or her immediate and medium-term needs. This includes supervision, board and lodging, and very often a health, nutritional and psychological screening. Particular care is taken not to separate siblings and not to cut the UAC off from his or her social and cultural environment. The most frequent solution is placement in a foster family (2), in keeping with the principles of the Convention of the Rights of the Child which states that if a child cannot live with its parents, care within a family environment is the best option (Article 20). Other solutions include the creation of "artificial" families (a spontaneous or constituted group of about five adolescent UACs, living together under adult supervision) or independence for the oldest UACs. To place UACs in pre-existing or specially-created centres is generally the last resort and is recognized to be the least appropriate way of meeting the basic needs of an UAC.


Response to crisis in Rwanda and the asylum countries

10. Humanitarian organizations faced a very grave and complex situation in post-genocide Rwanda. Even before the end of the war, various organizations, including UNICEF, UNHCR and ICRC and the International Federation of the Red Cross met to define the methods of assistance for Rwandan UACs. A consensus was reached that one agency, ICRC, would be the focal point for information, and that programmes for tracing and the promotion of fostering should be set up. Unfortunately the situation was such that the programme had to respond to immediate needs and did not have the chance to set up a more theoretical framework. Even though the UAC coordination group (UNICEF, UNHCR, ICRC and Save the Children UK (SCF)) and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in areas under their control favoured fostering, thousands of UACs were placed in centres, some of which were set up before the crisis, but two thirds (68 percent) (3) of which were created in response to the immediate needs.

11. A multitude of national and particularly international organizations flung themselves into the care of UACs and the setting up of centres, often under considerable media pressure. At least 50 were working with UACs in Rwanda in 1994. Most, putting their experience and expertise to work, worked in humanitarian response. Unhappily, a minority of organizations saw in UAC programmes an opportunity for media coverage or fund-raising. In these circumstances, the centres caring for UACs offered widely differing conditions, but things they did have in common were overcrowding (43% of the centres had double their proper capacity of children) and a lack of specialized staff (only two out of 47 centres registered in 1995 could offer qualified medical personnel or social workers). The problem wasn't so much the placing of children in centres, but the disorganization, stemming from the absence of institutional and administrative structures, in which the programme developed. The situation allowed the multiplication of centres without regulation, standards and safeguards. Despite the lack of time, some shortcomings were tackled early on. SCF, for example, trained workers in UAC centres in the RPF-controlled zone even before the RPF had reached Kigali.

12. Other caring arrangements sprung up spontaneously or thanks to interventions by organizations: in April 1995, 28,300 UACs in Rwanda were estimated to be placed in foster families. These arrangements were the subject of some debate when established: whether to support local initiatives or strengthen state structures, pursue a social solution or give initial assistance. Here too the differing strategies which all tried to tackled the immense needs. Many child-headed families were also created. Statistics relating to these families vary wildly: from 6,000 up to more than 100,000. Different definitions no doubt contribute to the confusion in numbers, but nevertheless, this group represents a significant part of the UAC population who were also the targets of specific assistance.

13. In another development, a few NGOs, for protection or medical reasons, evacuated UACs abroad, some to Europe. These evacuations were thought to be, at best, ill-prepared and beset by many problems. Even though they represented only a minimal number of UACs, the evacuations were significant in the media attention that they attracted, and for the complications that individuals of good will and but little experience of the complexity of the care of UACs brought to the effort. In effect, organizations were faced with a refusal or misgivings from the child or the family when the time came for the child to return to Rwanda. Children often found it hard to reintegrate into their home areas (some even forgot Kinyarwanda and were unable to communicate with their families when they returned).

14. When in July 1994, nearly two million Rwandans took to the road and fled Rwanda - mainly to Zaire - the humanitarian community faced another major crisis, accentuated in Goma by the declaration of a cholera epidemic. The circumstances of the exodus led to many separations, and by August 1994, over 20,000 UACs were taken into care in Goma by overwhelmed humanitarian organizations, again with the formation of centres, either in Zairean orphanages or new centres/camps for UACs. In 1994, 28 UAC centres were set up in Goma, and 15 in Bukavu; 4,000 more UACs were registered as placed with Zairean families in Goma and 300 in Bukavu. Towards the end of 1994 and the beginning of 1995, UACs continued to arrive at the centres. Many children in fact did have a family in the camps, but were declaring themselves UACs to benefit from a higher level of assistance (4). UACs in centres often benefitted from clothes, teaching materials, hygienic surroundings and supervision which did not match the harsh conditions of life in the camps.

15. The situation in Tanzania should be regarded separately as the establishment of centres was not encouraged even though the arrival of Rwandans in Tanzania represented one of the largest and most rapid migrations ever recorded. This can be explained by the fact that the exodus was relatively orderly and organized - people left home and arrived in Tanzania grouped by sector and commune, which reduced the risk of separation and made tracing easier. The second factor was UNHCR's pre-positioning of a team in the region which could, within a few hours of arrival, identify UACs, conduct tracing and place the children in families from the same commune, facilitate immediate reunification and even mount campaigns to prevent separations. Equally the Tanzanian government asked local people looking after UACs to bring them to the camps to help in reunification.

Care structures

16. The Rwandan UAC programme is complex due to the ongoing emergency, the scale (more than 105,000 children in total have been registered by ICRC), and also due to the diversity of situations the UACs were in. Naturally a consistent policy was not applied and programmes were governed by bilateral agreements covering certain geographical zones or certain areas of responsibility. One example of the lack of coordination was the paperwork. Different forms were used in Rwanda and the asylum countries and sometimes different forms were used at camps in the same country. Nevertheless, all the forms are in the end, processed at ICRC which enters them in its database.

17. In August 1994, the new Rwandan government made a declaration on UAC policies which promoted tracing, reunification and placement in foster families, and which overall aimed to avoid assisting UACs in centres.. This policy has been reinforced several times, despite some wavering, notably in June 1995 in the launch of a campaign called "one child, one family", seeking to promote fostering, and in the publication by the Rwandan Ministry of Social Affairs, with the support of SCF, of a policy framework for the management of centres. In April 1995, 77 centres held 12,705 UACs, in October 1996, 57 centres cared for 6,620 UACs and in July 1997, 50 centres held about 5,000 UACs. Assistance to foster families was developed accordingly.

18. The good results in reducing numbers of UACs in centres are the product both of reunifications and placements. Placing children in foster families is a process that takes time and thorough work. Some observers however, warn against over-hasty placements and reunifications carried out by organizations which do not take into account the human dimension and which only seek to achieve the greatest number of reunifications.

19. In the refugee camps, methodologies were developed to reunify children declared to be UACs but who did have family in the camps. Family mediation was undertaken, in particular by UNICEF and other agencies to allow the reunification of the child and promote its social development. Material assistance was also provided in programmes developed by UNHCR, UNICEF and other organizations to help the poorest families take back their children. Often these families consisted of minors, or households headed by women, or families headed by an elderly person. In other cases, organizations put older children in vocational training in trades (sewing, basket-weaving or carpentry).

Fostering UACs in families or "artificial" families for requires careful social research to avoid any physical or emotional abuse. Difficult living conditions in the camps mean that some families might take in a child simply to gain the supplementary aid, later to throw the child out. Some cases of exploitation (UACs used as domestic servants, for example) and physical abuse have also been recorded. Another unfortunate group whom agencies have to deal with sensitively is that of unaccompanied girls who have been raped and become "unaccompanied child-mothers". (5)


20. Tracing operations begin with agreements between agencies: ICRC and SCF are the two agencies in change of tracing in all Rwandan communes which they have divide up geographically. Other organizations are also involved in some communes where they already have activities. SCF is in charge of reunifications within Rwanda and ICRC takes care of reunifications between countries. In the camps, where UAC activities are coordinated by UNHCR and UNICEF, tracing is done on the basis of agreements made locally, and includes UNHCR, UNICEF, ICRC, SCF and NGOs with UAC or social programmes in the camps.

21. Numerous difficulties hamper effective tracing, but some centres refuse or block tracing initiatives in order to keep the child in the centre. On one hand, individuals or organizations may feel the living conditions in the centre are better than those offered by a foster family and that it is in the child's best interests to stay in the centre. In other cases, the centre represents a significant sources of revenue for the staff and community and so efforts to wind up the centre may be hindered by those who gain from the centre's continued existence (local authorities or suppliers, for example). This phenomenon is accentuated by the tough economic situation both in Rwanda and in the asylum countries.

22. The first kind of tracing is that done spontaneously by parents, through their own information networks reaching into the communes, the camps and the centres. It is impossible to gauge how many parents find their children in this way, as it is rarely reported. Organizations have developed their own methods of tracing using those common ones as well as adding or adapting methods according to the particularities of the situation.

23. Tracing is most generally done on a case by case basis: following up on information given by the UAC, an organization heads for the field to trace the family. But in Rwanda, given the size of the programme and number of UACs, this was rapidly abandonned in favour of mass tracing. This consists of tracing a group of children from the same commune. With local authorities and NGOs, a meeting is held where lists of the children's names are read out and parents or others can come forward with information. The meetings also let parents fill in a form if they have lost a child and lets those who have been looking after a child to register him or her as a UAC. This method was used in all Rwandan communes between mid-1995 and mid-1996.

24. In the agreement signed in 1994 between UNICEF, UNHCR, the International Federation of the Red Cross and ICRC, ICRC is responsible for centralizing the information on all Rwandan UACs throughout the region. To achieve that, organizations give ICRC a copy of the form carrying all relevant details of the child.. A copy is sent to Nairobi where the ICRC has the most significant database on UACs ever assembled. A dictionary of more than 60,000 Rwandan names has been created to minimize the risk of double entries. The database includes information on the UAC and a "case history" (where they were found, if they have been in a foster family, changes of address) and also includes the names of the parents seeking their children. The database can therefore perform tracing as well as help in producing lists which are sent to the field for tracing en masse.

25. The media have also been used in tracing, broadcasting messages for the tracing programmes or sensitization messages, and also lists of UACs or persons who are being looked for. These messages have been sent by BBC in Kinyarwanda and in eastern Zaire by Radio Agatashya (Fondation Hirondelle).

26. Photo tracing was launched in the eastern Zaire camps by UNICEF - it consists of sticking up the photos of UACs in a special place where refugees seeking their children can come to look. This method is particularly useful in camp situations, where people are collected in one place, and led to many reunifications in and between camps. It also helps build up information on UACs or the whereabouts of their parents thanks to the testimony of other refugees who recognize a child. Photo tracing was used again during the massive repatriation starting in November 1996 - the children were photographed in the field and prints displayed in transit centres where the refugees passed through. A brochure containing the photographs of 220 UACs from the Goma repatriation in November 1996 was published by ICRC and distributed in the communes where the parents could consult it.

Reunifications and verification

27. The different methods of tracing have led to numerous reunifications inside and outside Rwanda. Of 105,000 total identified UACs, nearly 50,000 reunifications have been successful. There have been some barriers to reunifications from asylum countries back to Rwanda. Frequently, the UAC refuses reunification because he/she does not want to go back to Rwanda. This can be the result of pressure from militants in the camps who were against repatriation, beliefs of the foster family or personnel in the UAC centres about the security situation in Rwanda, or fears of the child who suffered a traumatizing experience in Rwanda and does not want to abandon its new environment. Some UACs have refused reunification as they refuse to believe that their parents are alive. During the reunification process, organizations help exchange Red Cross messages and photos between the child and family. A photo of the child once home with his or her family is sent to the foster family to attest to the reunification.

28. These procedures also assist systems of verification. In the Rwandan context, post-genocide, particular attention has to be paid to children's protection and particularly that of UACs during the tracing process. Protection of adolescents is also of concern giving their fears of arrest on return. Latest available figures indicate that 2,641 minors are in detention in Rwanda.

Repatriation operations

29. Burundi: July and August 1996: More than 2,000 UACs were registered in the camps of Rwandan refugees in northern Burundi, but after the repatriation, only 400 were identified. This indicates that a large majority of "UACs" were in fact nothing of the sort. This may well have been the case in the other asylum countries. This underlines the importance of a control system being part of the identification process, as well as the necessity of a balance between assistance to a specific vulnerable group and the population at large.

30. Tanzania: December 1996: The decision to repatriate the Rwandan refugees from Tanzania was made public by the Tanzanian authorities well in advance and preparations were made by the governments concerned and UNHCR. International organizations stressed to the refugee community the prevention of separations (messages passed to refugees to stay in the family group, to carry or tie themselves to young children) and also make preparations for separation if they do happen (making sure the child could give information on its identity or carry some documentation). Agencies also made a detailed division of responsibilities so that tracing could get underway without delay. The move of the deadline to an earlier date and the denial of access to refugees during the repatriation during repatriation meant that NGOs, for part of the time could not apply their programme as planned. Nonetheless, the operation underlined the importance of preparedness in the management of UACs: of 2,500 UACs registered in the repatriations, 1,912 (70%) were reunified.

31.Zaire: Goma November 1996: In contrast to the Tanzanian experience, no preparation was made for the unexpected and massive repatriation. Beyond sensitization messages broadcast to refugees to remain in family groups, UAC operations were concentrated on rapid or "immediate" tracing. Refugee parents who had lost children were invited to go to a transit centre at Nkamira, Gisenyi, where recently-separated children spent two days and where many reunifications took place. According to the Rwandan government's directives, under which refugees would return directly to their commune of origin, UACs were transferred to their prefecture after identification and a preliminary documentation was taken. NGOs undertook direct tracing activities on the ground, sending UACs from the same commune in a vehicle to their houses to seek their families. Of 6,300 UACs registered during the repatriation (November 1996), 5,151 (80%) were reunified (according to ICRC, January 1997).

32. Eastern DRC: after December 1996. The dispersal of the Uvira, Bukavu and Goma camps led to the flight of refugees into the forest and led to many separations at different stages. UAC operations took place in two ways: UACs coming out of the forest along with other refugees from Goma and Bukavu, and air repatriations. As a vulnerable group, UACs were the first evacuated from eastern DRC along with the sick. The first big repatriation air operations from DRC to Rwanda took place in March 1997 from Tingi-Tingi and Amisi where more than 500 UACs, too feeble to flee with the other refugees, stayed behind when the camps were taken by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL). In the same month, a group of 166 UACs were repatriated from Kindu. This group consisted mainly of children who had come from the same orphanage in Rwanda. They had fled Rwanda in 1994 as a group, passing through Burundi, and were cared for in Bideka camp in Bukavu. They then fled from there in October 1996 for Shabunda, Kalima and finally Kindu.

33. After the attacks on refugees at sites south of Kisangani, and permission was given by the ADFL authorities for a repatriation operation, UACs began to be repatriated en masse. Given the poor sanitary conditions, the limited access of humanitarian organizations to the camps and the fear of another attack, the repatriation became a matter of life and death. Organizations reinforced their control system to verify that the parents of children found alone were not in the area and organized information campaigns to prevent separations. At the transit centre where the first assistance was given to the UAC and a form was filled, UNICEF and SCF, in charge of the UAC programme at Kisangani made the first reunifications thanks to visits from parents, lists of names and photos.

34. Those UACs repatriated directly to Rwanda or via transit centres at Bukavu and Goma (3,830 UACs since December 1996), are received in transit centres in Rwanda from where the same methods of tracing are initiated as those used in the November 1996 repatriation. Given the scale of the operation, the transit centres were at times saturated. At the Runda centre, near Kigali, the number of UACs peaked above 1,000 - mainly because of difficulties in sending the children to their prefectures as a growing number of the UACs, due to their age or their psychological state, could not offer any information on their commune of origin.


35. At the beginning of November 1996, before the big repatriations, the cases of nearly 15,000 UACs in Rwanda - mainly resulting from the 1994 genocide and war - had yet to be resolved. Several thousand UACs from the repatriations should be added to this figure of whom the majority are either under five or traumatized children who cannot identify their commune of origin. Tracing methods have been developed for these groups, combining photo tracing and a psycho-social study of the child (habits, manners, physical traits) and to look into clues that the child can give - for example, role-playing games to discover the occupation of the parents.

36. The Rwandan government has demonstrated its intention to close UAC centres, currently numbering 50 and holding 5,000 UACs. The repatriation has temporarily suspended tracing efforts for the 1994 caseload. Other programmes for certain categories of UACs such as street children, child soldiers known as "Kadogos" (numbering 2,902 on 31 December 1996) and families headed by a minor (6,000 as of 31 December 1996) (6) continue.

37. The tracing process continues as long as the organizations involved believe they have not explored every possibility of reunifying a child with a member of the family. In certain cases, this can take longer, as for the traumatized children and the under-fives. Policies for long-term solutions are clearly the responsibility of the Rwandan government. Semi-formal guidelines have been established to govern fostering. In Rwandan culture, adoption is hardly known as a child is never considered an orphan while a member of the family - however distantly related - can take care of him or her.

38. The current security problems in certain prefectures of Rwanda which block access by humanitarian organizations are also a brake on the tracing and reunification process. Children are sent to their prefecture but stay at centres (often in the main town) where parents have to come and look for them. Follow-up and monitoring are also affected by the situation.

39. Repatriations from DRC are slowing, but small groups of refugees still are emerging from huge swathes of territory from Mbandaka to Goma, and from Bukavu to Kindu. The UAC programme concentrates mainly on UACs coming from the forest and UACs in Congolese families (since 1994 or since 1996). Teams of Red Cross volunteers and local NGOs, supported by international organizations, are charged with identifying, documenting and sending them to transit centres from where they can be repatriated. Some difficulties have been experienced with children living with Congolese families, where the family may either ask for a "compensation" for looking after the child or real affection makes them want to stay together. UNHCR, UNICEF, ICRC and SCF have defined strategies to deal with these cases. There are also Burundian and Congolese children in the transit centres in eastern DRC. The Burundians await a decision on the part of the DRC as to their status, while the Congolese are assisted by tracing operations mounted by ICRC and SCF.

40. The programmes for Rwandan UACs are undoubtedly the most important of their kind ever undertaken. In terms of the number of beneficiaries, the organizations involved, resources mobilized and the number of countries covered, they are unprecedented. From this experience, local and international humanitarian organizations have been able to develop tools and methodologies, whose application was demonstrated in the recent repatriations. The programmes are now moving into a different phase, in which the accent is on the resolution of the most delicate cases, and the search for durable long-term solutions, in the context of development and reintegration in Rwanda.


(1) Family tracing, A good practice guide, Save the Children (SCF), 1994.

(2) Travailler avec des Enfants Non Accompagnes, une Approche Communautaire, UNHCR.

(3) Evaluation des Besoins des Centres pour Enfants Non Accompagnes, Ministere rwandais de la rehabilitation et de l'integration sociale et UNICEF, January 1995.

(4) Children separated by war, family tracing and renuification, SCF, 1995.

(5) Bulletin regional no 5 (septembre 96) 'De la Corne aux Grands Lacs', CICR; Edition speciale: les enfants perdus du genocide, 2 ans apres.

(6) Statistiques de "Les enfants: le futur du Rwanda", Ministere du Travail et des Affaires sociales, avec le support de l'UNICEF, December 1996.

Autres: - Starting from zero, The promotion and protection of children's rights in post-genocide Rwanda, UNICEF, 1997.

- 'Aidez-nous a retrouver nos familles', brochure speciale CICR, January 1995.

- Les Enfants Refugies, Principes directeurs concernant la protection et l'assistance, UNHCR, 1994.

- Unaccompanied Children: Care and protection in wars, natural disasters and refugee movements, Ressler, Boothby and Steinbock, Oxford University Press, 1988.

- 'Retrieving childhood', A report of the Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances Programme in Rwanda, UNICEF October 1996.


[Via the UN DHA Integrated Regional Information Network. The material contained in this communication may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN DHA IRIN Tel: +254 2 622123 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail: for more information. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts from this report should include attribution to the original sources mentioned, not simply "DHA".]

Date: Tue, 29 Jul 1997 16:58:10 -0300 (GMT+3) From: UN DHA IRIN - Great Lakes <> Subject: Great Lakes: IRIN Special Feature - Unaccompanied Children 97.7.30 Message-ID: <Pine.LNX.3.95.970729165647.501k-ength: 31953

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D

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