Delivering an impassioned call for urgent international action in a briefing in New York, the former British prime minister and Labour party leader said more than half the world’s record numbers of 38 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 16.7 million refugees are children.
An estimated 825,000 children are being trafficked each year and 5 million girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry. In total, according to UN figures, about 168 million children are used for unskilled labour, 85 million of whom are engaged in hazardous work. It is estimated 8.6 million children are in slavery, Brown said.
“This is not the year of the child but the year of fear, with 2015 already the worst year since 1945 for children being displaced, the worst year for children becoming refugees, the worst year for children seeing their schools attacked,” he said. “We expect the figure to rise in crisis zone after crisis zone as even school-age children who were once at school are being forced into child labour. Today in some of the world’s most troubled spots it is open season for traffickers, with girls snatched from the streets in Nepal to adolescents forced into marriage in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.”
The extreme impact on children of the four-year-old civil war in Syria has received more international attention than many other crises. According to Save the Children, 10,000 Syrian children have been killed since the conflict began, 5.6 million are in need of humanitarian aid and 3.5 million have been forced from their homes. Nearly 2 million children have fled the country, while 3 million are unable to go to school.
But 2015 has also seen an alarming spate of new, or renewed, crises including those in Burma and Bangladesh, where many of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who have fled by sea in recent weeks are unaccompanied children under 18.
In northern Nigeria and Pakistan, schools have been attacked and schoolgirls abducted by Islamist extremists. In Burundi, more than 100,000 refugees, mostly women and children, have fled current political unrest. Many are now at risk from a cholera epidemic affecting makeshift camps in Tanzania, with 400 new cases being reported daily.
In South Sudan, children are being forcibly recruited as child soldiers as internal conflict has flared in the wake of the country’s 2011 declaration of independence. In Nepal, meanwhile, homeless young girls have become increasingly vulnerable to people traffickers in the wake of the recent earthquake disaster.
“This week, Nepalese state radio messages are confirming what we already know,” Brown said. “In the midst of the fallout from the earthquake, the government is directly warning half a million girls – now on the streets – and their parents, to beware of suspicious gangs trying to recruit them and traffic them out of the country.”
Brown said improved educational opportunities provided the best way to help vulnerable children, and called for the creation of a new international fund to help quickly target and assist young people caught up in wars and emergencies. He called on governments, aid agencies and development organisations to back the proposed “global humanitarian fund for education in emergencies”, which he said could be launched at the UN general assembly in New York in September.
The UN’s World Education Forum, held in Incheon, South Korea, this month, heard that worldwide, 58 million children currently have no schooling at all, while 250 million are not learning basic skills even though half have spent at least four years at school.
The forum adopted targets intended to provide “inclusive, equitable, quality education for all”, underpinning the new Sustainable Development Goals that will supersede the 15-year-old Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when the general assembly meets this autumn.
Significant progress has been made in some least developed countries in improving early life education but many aspects of the MDGs on education, including universal access to primary education, remain unmet, the forum was told.
Anthony Lake, executive director of the UN children’s fund (Unicef), said: “If this generation of children is to someday reduce the inequalities and injustices that afflict the world today, we must give all our children a fair chance to learn. This must be our collective vision and commitment.”
Kishore Singh, UN special rapporteur on education, called for new strategies focusing on girls and women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and children living in conflict-affected areas, rural areas and urban slums. He said: “It is the weakest among us who need education the most and we cannot stand by as they are being excluded.”