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Thousands of children are currently separated from their parents as the result of the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, with many living in unsafe and dire conditions in informal camps, according to Save the Children.
Six months on since the fighting started, at least 917 unaccompanied and 4,056 separated children have been recorded by the UN[i]. Many of them have no adult caregivers and are at risk of neglect and sexual and physical abuse, Save the Children said.
Many of these children were separated from their parents while fleeing for their lives during the conflict. Others have lost parents to the violence.
Save the Children is gravely concerned for the mental and physical wellbeing of these children. Separated children face enormous challenges in meeting their basic needs, missing the people in their lives who would usually help them find food, water and shelter.
Save the Children staff report that some of these children are currently not in safe care arrangements. Many are living in single rooms where more than 50 people sleep, exposing them to further risks of harm including physical and sexual violence.
Since the conflict started, sexual violence against girls and women – even pregnant and elderly women – has grown at an alarming rate. In the past two months, more than 950 girls and women have reported they have been raped.[ii] However, in reality, this figure is likely to be much higher. Women who have spoken with Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit say that many survivors are too scared to report the sexual assault or to seek treatment, due to stigma and fear of reprisal.
Atsede* became separated from her husband and four children when armed men attacked their village in Tigray. In the chaos, everyone ran in different directions. Atsede told Save the Children that she and 34 other women were raped by groups of armed men. Atsede was five months pregnant at the time. She said:
“Two of my children are with my husband but I don’t know where they are. I cannot contact them. I heard that one of my sons is in another town by himself. He’s 10 years old. And my two-year-old is with my parents. I assume my husband and other two children – who are girls, one is eight and one is 14 – are in Sudan but they may also be dead. I don’t know. I am waiting for my husband to call me. Some people tell me they are in Sudan and some have told me my husband was killed with my two girls.”
Arsema*, 11, was separated from her parents when conflict erupted in Tigray last year. She is being cared for by her older brother Yonas, in a camp for displaced families. Arsema told Save the Children:
“Before the war broke out, everything was great. But when the war started everything went bad. There was always the sound of guns and armed men. I felt afraid. We escaped. We travelled on foot. We travelled for one month. I was worried about my parents. I miss my parents. I want to be with my parents again. I still feel afraid.”
Magdalena Rossman, Save the Children’s Child Protection Advisor for the Tigray Response, said:
“A family that is split apart through conflict suffers hugely, both psychologically and physically. Children who are separated from their parents often tell us they are afraid and are unable or unwilling to engage in simple activities that used to give them pleasure. Without parents who used to provide safety and a sense of security, many children need additional support to cope with their situation they find themselves in. We are very concerned because the protection systems that would normally support separated children have been almost totally disrupted due to the conflict and now there is no support network to help the most vulnerable children.”
Across the Tigray region, more than 1.7 million children and adults[iii] are displaced as a result of the conflict and need urgent support with access to food – including therapeutic food for malnourished children – shelter, healthcare, mental health support, clean water and sanitation services.
Save the Children’s Country Director in Ethiopia, Ekin Ogutogullari, said:
“The situation in Tigray is critical. Six months on since the start of this conflict, hundreds of thousands of people have still not received assistance. The humanitarian response is underfunded, and the international community must continue to step up to ensure the funding matches the scale of this crisis. The protection of civilians, especially women and children, must be prioritised by all actors and public structures, including schools and health facilities, must not be targeted. We also call on all armed groups to vacate health and educational facilities so children can return to school safely and access life-saving healthcare.”
Save the Children is providing support to unaccompanied and separated children in Tigray by finding appropriate care arrangements, supporting foster families who are caring for children, case management and also by helping children to access clean water, food and shelter.
The organisation is also setting up Child Friendly Spaces where children can learn and play and build their skills and resilience to be able to cope with the situation and to make sense of their situation. Finally, Save the Children is working with partners to trace parents who may have fled to other parts of the Tigray region. The ultimate goal is always – whenever possible and in child’s best interest – to reunify children with their families.
Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit is providing mental health and psychosocial support to sexual violence survivors and children and adults who have been impacted by the conflict.
The conflict in Tigray, which escalated on 4 November 2020, is having a devastating impact on children. Many children have witnessed things no child should ever see, have become lost or separated from loved ones and have been forced to flee their homes. Health facilities have been damaged and there is a shortage of medical supplies and drugs, leaving children, pregnant women and those who have suffered sexual violence without access to vital healthcare.
Children have also been out of school for months, putting them at risk of exploitation, sexual violence, early marriage and child labour as well as interfering with their right to an education and making it less likely for them to return to school.
*Name changed to protect identity