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Home Article 74 The ICJ Ruling on the Wall (Autumn 2004) Refugee Children: The Ideal Does not Match the Reality

Refugee Children: The Ideal Does not Match the Reality

Written by  Ron Wilkinson

Under international law, children, especially refugee children, are guaranteed rights, protection and humanitarian assistance. How does the ideal match reality?

Some 370 children are in Israeli prisons, thousands have had their homes demolished in the past year by Israeli military action, education and health care are being degraded. Children have suffered long-term disabilities as a result of violent actions by the authorities, Palestinian children have even been used as human shields to allow Israeli jeeps to enter a Palestinian area.

The practice was supposed to end with new regulations in January 2003 but the Israeli army continued to used it. In September 2004, the Israeli High Court asked the Government of Israel to reply to charges that troops still use human shields.

To begin with, Palestine refugees within UNRWA’s area of operations have been specifically excluded from the global refugee protection regime as outlined in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Even so, Palestinian refugee children are entitled to much broader protection of their rights as children but they do not get it despite the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), UN special sessions on children, resolutions of the UN Security Council and reports by various UN Special Rapporteurs on the Occupied Palestinian Territories.


Children have the rights to quality education. In its area of operations, UNRWA provides basic education for some 488,000 Palestinian refugee children. But Palestinian children, refugees and non-refugees alike, especially in the occupied territories face:

--restriction on free movement to reach school, delays at checkpoints, closure of schools, building of the wall preventing children from going directly the shortest way from home to school;
--lost days, teachers unable to get to school;
--children shot/killed in UNRWA schools or on the way to school. The most recent incident happened on 22 September when 10-year-old Rhagad al-Assar from Khan Younis, Gaza Strip died after being shot at her UNRWA school desk by an Israeli Defence Force bullet on 7 September.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen said in reaction: “On countless occasions I have called upon the Israeli authorities to respect their obligations under the CRC and under International Humanitarian Law in general, and to stop firing on the schools, fearing that innocent schoolchildren would inevitably be killed. Now it has happened. It is a tragic and senseless death. We have all failed to protect this child. Such killings must stop.”1

International laws/conventions/guidelines applying to children
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
UN Standard Minimum Rules for Administration of Juvenile Justice
UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprive of their liberty
Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons
In Time of War (4th Geneva Convention)
Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care (UNHCR)

Health care

Children have the right to adequate health care. Palestinian refugee children in areas where UNRWA operates in most cases can get to agency clinics and health centres but hundreds are wounded by gunfire, most have been subjected to violence or seen close family and friends subjected to violence. They need both mental and physical health care.

Studies by Save the Children, the UN and others have shown that while health care provided by UNRWA eliminated many childhood illnesses, over 44 per cent of children aged 6-59 months in Gaza and a similar number in West Bank, for example are malnourished or suffering from serious diseases brought on by an inadequate diet.

Palestinian refugee children are under significant psycho-social strain from the general quality of their lives and frequent exposure to violence and threats of violence which leads to widespread feelings of insecurity among children in Gaza and the West Bank. In Jordan, Lebanon and Syria children are affected by poverty, exposure to discrimination, overcrowded living conditions and limited access to both higher education and recreation possibilities.

In the Occupied Territories, almost 700 Palestinian minors were killed by Israel security forces between December 1987 and July 2003, 25 killed by Israeli civilians in the same period.

Workshop focuses on refugee children

In June, UNRWA convened a meeting of governments and NGOs in Geneva to discuss the future of the Agency and highlight ways to strengthen the capacity of UNRWA to respond to Palestinian refugee needs.

The meeting included a one-day workshop on “Promoting the Well-being of the Palestine Refugee Child.” UNRWA provides more than 600 schools for Palestinian refugee children in its areas of operation, 6 vocational teacher training centers, a network of health care centres and basic food assistance to some 4.1 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.

In addition, the Agency often has to provide emergency assistance as currently in the West Bank and Gaza where it is providing additional foodstuffs to most refugees, psycho-social care to children, makeup classes to help continue children’s education and emergency health care for injured and wounded refugees.

Recommendations from the meeting included a review of the fulfillment of the rights of Palestinian refugee children, advocacy to promote awareness of the CRC and other elements of international humanitarian and human rights law, particularly as they relate to children and improvement of education and health care for children, including mental health and rehabilitation of the disabled.


1 For further information on the current problems of educating Palestinian refugee children, see al-Majdal No. 22 of June 2004: “Another right denied. Demotivation and discontinuity mark education under occupation”.

For the background papers on the Geneva meeting, see UNRWA’s web site:

Ron Wilkinson is a media consultant for BADIL.

Palestinian Refugee Children, International Protection and Durable Solutions
by Renata Capella

A new information and discussion brief forthcoming from BADIL. The brief examines relevant international law and gaps concerning protection of Palestinian refugee children and the search for durable solutions. The brief is part of a series examining vulnerable sectors of the Palestinian refugee community.

Ron Wilkinson

Ron Wilkinson

Ron Wilkinson is a past media consultant with BADIL