On its closing session, the ‘Investing in the Future' conference on Thursday issued the 'Sharjah Principles' which called for providing international protection to all refugee children and adolescents so as to enjoy their right to family unity and be protected from family separation.
All refugee children and adolescents to enjoy their right to quality education in a safe environment supportive of their developmental needs and to be protected against violence, abuse, and exploitation, including child labour, and have access to national systems and services delivered in a protective way, including health and psychosocial support, the Sharjah Principles emphasised.
The conference marked the first regional conference devoted to the protection of refugee children and adolescents in the Middle East and North Africa. Hosted on 15-16 October by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in partnership with The Big Heart and under the patronage of HH Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, the conference was held at the invitation of Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, Wife of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah, and the first Eminent Advocate appointed by UNHCR. More than 300 participants from the Middle East and beyond gathered at Sharjah's Al Jawaher Reception and Convention Centre to examine the protection of children and young people in a refugee context, exploring and highlighting concrete ways to strengthen child protection systems to address the tragic reality that every minute another child is forced to flee in the Arab world.
One of the main outcomes of the conference is a set of principles related to the protection of refugee children and adolescents in the Middle East and North Africa. This important document was presented to all conference participants and the media at a closing session held the afternoon of 16 October in the presence of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi , Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, Wife of HH and the first Eminent Advocate appointed by UNHCR, Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, Chairperson of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority. The session was moderated by Zeina Yaziji of Sky News. Sheikha Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, United Arab Emirates took to the podium and gave a closing statement.
In his speech, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan said that the directions of the Ruler of Sharjah, with regards to attention to humanitarian issues, his underline on the meanings of solidarity and compassion, and on mutual contribution to humanitarian acts in the region and world, served as a strong incentive for all to work together for protection of children and young adults who represent more than half of the refugee population in the region.
He affirmed that the generous patronage of the Ruler of Sharjah to the conference represents a natural extension to the great attention paid by the U.A.E. under the leadership of President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who always stresses on care of children and youth everywhere, protecting them from risks, under all circumstances, as care for them is a vital dimension to the sustainable human development and an essential investment in the future of the community, region and the entire world, and, above all, a conclusive evidence of the humanity of our community and a real embodiment of our commitments to extend helping hands and support to all in need, liberate them from oppression, provide security and stability to them, and help them as much as we can to positively contribute to their nation and region.
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak extended thanks to Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, for her constant efforts towards supporting and protecting the refugees in the region, and her many initiatives to alleviate the suffering of those affected from wars and conflicts. We, also, highly appreciate their clear role in women empowerment in the emirate of Sharjah and everywhere.
He said that refugee children and young adults are in urgent need of a special care, as they represent a human and development problem, and they are part of the coming generation in the region. Therefore, we must relentlessly protect and enable them to be leaders of tomorrow and pioneers of the future. He added that providing protection and empowerment to refugee children and young adults in the region requires immense efforts on a number of areas, including human development, spreading awareness in community among them about their rights, commitment to international conventions, conducting researches and studies, registering and documenting all cases, being updated on all problems the refugees may face, prioritising work in this regard, finding, finding best circumstances to end wars and conflicts, which will lead to return the refugees to their native countries.
He concluded his speech by stressing the importance of this conference, which will be highlighted through resulting work plans implemented on the ground. He expressed his desires that conference will serve as a good beginning to protect and enable refugee children and youth in the region, and to leading to the identification of what is required to do by all, to be perfectly able to fulfil our human and national duty in response for this dangerous crisis."
Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, introduced the conference's main outcomes, a critical set of principles formally titled ‘Sharjah Principles.' He began his closing statement by first recognising HH Sheikh Sultan: "Allow me first of all to express my deep admiration and gratitude to HH Sheikh Sultan. Thanks to your vision, your humanity, you have been assuming a very important leadership in humanitarian affairs. As a result of that leadership, the convening and sponsorship of this conference has an enormous meaning for us all." Mr. Guterres continued, "I hope that at a moment in which we have more than 50 million people displaced in the world, the largest number since the second World War, I hope that political leaders around the world will be inspired by your vision and your leadership and do everything possible not only to respond to the humanitarian needs of the victims but to address the root causes of displacement and put an end to the cycle that has been intensified in a horrible way in the last few years." Introducing the final document that was the culmination of the conference he remarked, "I want to express my enormous appreciation and gratitude for the excellent contributions that were given during this debate. It was a very lively debate. Many very relevant suggestions, proposals, and ideas were put on the table and is a precious contribution to our capacity to respond to one of the most challenging humanitarian situations ever faced in relation to displacement in the world. Even more important than the quality of the debate has been the commitment that was shown by all the participants.
He further prefaced the document, "With such a rich debate, knowing that we are not an inter-governmental conference, that we cannot approve formal resolutions, I asked our moderators to try to capture the most important aspects of the discussion and to try to draft a number of principles, that not being binding, are principles that should guide our action in support of refugee children in the region and around the world." Mr. Guterres then read aloud the defining document in its entirety: Representatives of States and governments, together with representatives of international organisations and civil society, met in October 2014 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, to jointly address the situation of refugee children in the Middle East and North Africa.
Noting that half of the world's refugees are children, millions of whom are located in the Middle East and North Africa, Acknowledging the long-standing traditions of hospitality and humanitarianism in Islam, including the principle of asylum (‘aman').
- Appreciating the generosity of States in providing international protection and assistance to millions of refugee children, including through access to national child protection systems, educational opportunities, and essential services.
- Recalling that refugee children have special needs and vulnerabilities that must be addressed within the wider context of forced displacement, noting the serious impact of armed conflict on children, who are at particular risk of abuse, exploitation, violence, and discrimination.
- Recognising that, while both girls and boys face similar risks, they also experience protection risks specific to their gender that need to be appropriately addressed, recognising that refugee children with other specific needs, including children with disabilities, require targeted assistance.
- Acknowledging, also, that refugee children and their families are highly resilient, and recognising the importance of harnessing the capacity of children to participate in decisions affecting their well-being and protection.
- Reiterating that the protection of refugee children is primarily the responsibility of States, and noting the supporting role of international organisations, non-governmental organisations, and civil society.
- Emphasising the importance of international solidarity, cooperation, and burden sharing in responding to the challenges faced by refugee children and adolescents,
-Recognising the need for joint efforts to mobilise the necessary resources for and support to governments and local communities hosting refugees, in light of the scale of displacement caused by on-going crises.
- Recalling that children's rights are enshrined in international human rights law, notably in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Acknowledging that improving the situation of refugee children and adolescents in the region is a shared responsibility and a means of investing in the future of the region.
- Recognise that the following international standards and principles are of particular relevance to improving the protection and well-being of refugee children in the region:
1. All refugee children and adolescents to enjoy international protection.
2. All refugee children and adolescents to have their best interests taken as a primary consideration in all matters affecting their well-being and their future.
3. All refugee children to be registered and documented at birth in countries of asylum.
4. All refugee children and adolescents to enjoy their right to family unity and be protected from family separation.
5. All refugee children and adolescents to enjoy their right to quality education in a safe environment supportive of their developmental needs.
6. All refugee children and adolescents to be protected against violence, abuse, and exploitation, including child labour, and have access to national systems and services delivered in a protective way, including health and psychosocial support.
Following the presentation of ‘The Sharjah Principles' Mr. Guterres drew attention to the role of aid inherent in the region, pointing out, "I know that the countries that are supporting refugees in the region are doing that in the best of Islamic tradition and law." In conclusion he called for "massive financial support" for the countries that are hosting refugees.
Following the closing session, members of local and international media participated in a special press conference. Mr. Guterres responded to outstanding questions and clarified points of the Sharjah Principles as requested by a crowd of journalists.
The first day of the conference served as a policy forum and included powerful speeches by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, Dr. Nabil Elaraby, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, and Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The second day of the event was themed around the theme of ‘Participation for Protection' and utilised panels and round tables as a vehicle for participants to share best practices, problem- solve, and engage in constructive debate. The more than 300 participants spanned multiple sectors including governance, legal, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, academia, and the legal and medical fields.
The first ‘Investing in the Future MENA Youth Forum', was held in tandem with the conference and drew 200 students from schools and universities across the country. Discussions were held on topics revolving around social innovation, state of education during emergency situations, and benefits of small-scale enterprise and social entrepreneurship in conflict-areas. However, special focus was paid on educating students on the workings on relief and aid organisations with the help of interactive tools like videos and social media. The main objective of the forum was to engage youth from the region to understand the dynamics and challenges of forced displacement within the MENA region.