Children at the Haranbush camp for displaced Syrians in Idlib province
Children at the Haranbush camp for displaced Syrians in Idlib province © Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

In the rubble of Homs, in Syria, a group of children emerged from the ruins pushing an old bicycle. They asked in Arabic if I wanted to ride with them.

These children looked hungry but did not ask for food. Some looked sick but did not ask for medicines. They wanted to ride a bike. They simply wanted to be children. 

Conflicts and emergencies affect everybody. Once-proud parents lose everything overnight — becoming refugees, victims, beneficiaries. These are not identities, but situations beyond their control. They appreciate food, water, sanitation and hygiene but the embarrassment in their eyes expresses a cry for peace and normalcy. The preservation of humanity starts with the care, support and protection of children, particularly in the hardest-to-reach places, the so-called last mile, where our first mile of response should start.

Today’s shocks and hazards are more frequent, severe, and protracted, almost all man-made — and always disproportionately affecting women and children. Their protection should never be an afterthought.

18The average number of years refugees spend in camps

For many, financing, nutrition and dignity supplies, child-friendly and safe spaces, protection and education are as life-saving as medical interventions. Nutrition programmes will save lives in the short term and prevent stunting and delayed cognitive development of children. Education, beyond numeracy and literacy, is a means to foster reconciliation and peace and break the cycle of violence. Caring for children in today’s traumatised world contributes to a better future for all.

This calls for responsible leadership, on the side of people in need, finding long-lasting solutions. stopping the enduring conflicts that affect millions of children. The average time refugees spend in camps is 18 years: children who were born in Dadaab refugee camp, in Kenya, had to celebrate their 18th birthdays there. These children are yearning to live a normal, peaceful life.

That cannot be achieved by humanitarian action alone. Guns must be silenced, peace must prevail. The UN charter’s “we, the people” must surely begin “we, the children”.

Women at the Dadaab refugee complex, in north-eastern Kenya
Women at the Dadaab refugee complex, in north-eastern Kenya © Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Governments have the primary responsibility to care for their own citizens. But, when our common humanity is hurt, all must feel motivated to respond, to advocate for that humanity, based on shared values of civilisation, solidarity and care. These are values that must be championed in the multilateral system and translated into action, to respond to children’s needs.

The world looks to countries such as the UK for more help, based on these values. The leadership of countries like the UK is needed now more than ever before, as the world and its children face unprecedented challenges.

According to the UN, global humanitarian spending needs are estimated at $35bn in 2021, but only $17bn have been mobilised — the usual 40-50 per cent coverage.

Humanitarian organisations are forced to compete for resources, creating fragmentation and yielding only partial results. Children, among the most vulnerable, remain less supported. This vulnerability will fuel the cycle of insecurity that will further hurt our common humanity.

In Africa’s Sahel region, years of neglect of children’s rights and needs have provided fertile ground for extremist groups. Investment in children in such fragile settings will reap a dividend in place of a curse, seeding greater cohesion, peace and development.

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Lines between humanitarian and development responses are getting blurrier, as crises are more frequent and protracted. Children remain among the most vulnerable across that continuum and responding to their needs should be a priority.

Financing should be predictable, at a scale that matches the challenges children face in education, protection, health, water, sanitation and hygiene. Such financing should be seen as an investment that will bring dividends: peace, social cohesion, health and a better future for all. We must build a movement for children through long-term partnerships between government, civil society and the private sector; between each generation and the next one; a legacy in our continuous chain of humanity.

We need active citizenship to hold governments accountable for the delivery of the children’s rights they have signed up to.

Parliamentarians must be the strongest advocates for the respect of these promises to the world’s children, ensuring that funding for these commitments features in every year’s budgetary debate. Voices of children must be carried by leaders and champions at all levels of society.

Such a movement is needed — especially in emergencies, where responses must be accelerated and where always almost half of those affected are children. It is urgent to establish innovative mechanisms for a sustainably funded response to children’s needs.

In 2021 — this year of summits — there could be no better vision for Global Britain than to champion a renewed global commitment to children. Working together, the world could put in place the mechanisms and resources to build resilience, prevent and resolve conflicts, and act quickly and effectively to save lives and protect dignity and humanity whenever disaster strikes.

Rather than leaving conflicts to fester, and having to struggle anew to find the resources even for inadequate responses, we surely can build a proactive humanitarian system centred on the protection of our children.

There is no better sign of global solidarity than to put a smile on the face of every child. The world can surely afford that.

Elhadj As Sy
Elhadj As Sy © IFRC

Elhadj As Sy is chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation Board, co-chair of the WHO/World Bank Global Pandemic Preparedness Monitoring Board, and a governor at the Wellcome Trust. He previously served as secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Read his full essay on the Unicef website, here

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