A new report published by humanitarian experts at the University of Bath and the European University Institute suggests that policymakers, UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) urgently need to develop their approach to neglect faced by refugee children living in settings of displacement or armed conflict.

Neglect – which is defined as ‘the intentional or unintentional failure of a caregiver… to protect a child from actual or potential harm’ – is accepted as the most common form of child maltreatment globally. It is also one of the four forms of child maltreatment that is the focus of child protection efforts by humanitarian organisations (together with abuse, violence and exploitation). Yet, to date, there has been little focus on this issue specficially within humanitarian settings, including settings of displacement.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the research focused on the situation of Syrian, Sudanese, Iraqi and Somali refugee children living in Jordan, and Palestinian refugee children living in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.

In a region where roughly 50% of the population is below the age of 18, child protection has huge implications for public policy, humanitarian responses and societal stability. The report draws on insights from 170 interviews with children and their caregivers, group workshops - including arts-based workshops with children - as well as interviews with humanitarian scholars and practitioners, to argue that child neglect needs to be understood as more than simply the failure of caregivers.

Instead, it looks at the issue at the community level and reflects on how the humanitarian system either supports or undermines caregiving, including through access to health, education, and justice. In addition to humanitarian agencies, this system includes actors such as host governments, donor nations, public sector employees, neighbours, and kin. The report suggests that both individually and in the connections between them, these actors need to be considered for their impact upon caregiving.

In Jordan, for example, the report highlights how refugee children, particularly those from African backgrounds, are routinely subjected to violence and abuse by their peers - some of it extreme. Caregivers, however, reported on their lack of support from the police and courts.

In Gaza, caregivers described efforts to manage children's fear and trauma resulting from massive military violence and blockade that Western donor governments have proven unwilling to challenge in their engagement with the Government of Israel.

The researchers highlight both examples as the malfunctioning of the humanitarian system. Too often caregivers felt powerless to prevent harm in these settings and attributed their dilemma to actors within the humanitarian system.

The report considers both ‘direct neglect’, whereby children from certain populations are supported unequally or even ignored due to their nationality; and ‘indirect neglect’, by which the humanitarian system fails to provide the support needed by caregivers and therefore undermines their ability to provide adequate care.

Lead researcher, Dr Jason Hart from the University of Bath’s Centre for Development Studies and Centre for Conflict, Migration and Humanitarian Action explained: “This ground-breaking project demonstrates the need to focus on neglect as a major form of maltreatment experienced by refugee children. The report on this project illustrates the significant challenges faced by caregivers in addressing protection issues in these settings. We look forward to further dialogue with policymakers and practitioners on this important topic both within the region and globally.”

The research was conducted in collaboration with four locally-based NGOs - Sawiyan, Tamer Insitute for Community Education, Seenaryo and Collateral Repair Project - as well as the German-Jordanian University, and Proteknon Associates between October 2020 and March 2022. 38 'peer researchers', including five teenagers, from across the five different communities, received training and support to undertake interviews plus focus group discussions involving community members.

Theatre workshops with Sudanese and Somali children were run by Seenaryo in Jordan, while the Tamer Institute in Gaza held a series of workshops to explore children's ideas through art and story-writing.

Outreach and dissemination of findings to various stakeholders in the Middle East and beyond has already begun. The team seeks to work with leading agencies to translate research findings into changes in policy and practice.

See a a short video about the Seenaryo theatre project with Sudanese and Somali refugee children which formed part of this project.