Each year, thousands of children lose their parents to violence or become separated from them during the chaos of conflict. They are left with no choice but to endure long journeys to safety on their own.

Unaccompanied and separated children face many risks while fleeing and seeking safety. Without the protection of organisations like UNHCR, they are vulnerable to abuse, violence, neglect, exploitation, trafficking or military recruitment.

An estimated 173,800 unaccompanied and separated child refugees and asylum-seekers were reported worldwide in 2017. Ethiopia hosts the largest number of these children – over 43,000 – mostly from South Sudan.

But this truly is a global children’s emergency. In Bangladesh, for example, thousands of Rohingya children are now caring for their younger siblings after losing their families to conflict in Myanmar.

Rabiaa’s parents were killed when violence broke out in her village. In the chaos, Rabiaa fled and was separated from her siblings but found her two young nieces in distress on the side of the road.

Together, they made the harrowing 25-day walk to safety in Bangladesh. “It was a tough journey,” says Rabiaa. “My nieces were crying the whole time, missing their parents and little brothers.”

Rabiaa (right) fled to Bangladesh after violence broke out in her village, and she is now caring for her two orphaned nieces. © UNHCR / A. McConnell

They arrived at a UNHCR transit centre – the first stop for new arrivals in Bangladesh – and were given hot meals, clean water and new clothes. A week later, they moved to Kutupalong camp where they now live beside a former neighbour from Myanmar.

Torn from their homes and the lives they once knew, their support networks are weakened and their education disrupted.

“Since we all lost our parents, I am now playing the role of a mother and they are like my little children,” says Rabiaa of the two girls, aged four and nine.

Rabiaa’s story is sadly far too common – her family is one of some 5,600 in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region headed by someone under 18 years of age.

“We never think of children as lonely,” says Louise Aubin, Regional Representative for UNHCR in Canberra. “But here, I met some of the loneliest children who now have to adopt an adult role taking care of their own siblings.”

UNHCR works to identify unaccompanied and separated children to ensure their safety and protection. UNHCR also helps to rebuild their futures through family tracing and reunification services, psychosocial support, child-friendly spaces, education and livelihood activities.

UNHCR works to identify unaccompanied and separated children to ensure their safety and protection. © UNHCR / V. Tan

Despite the unimaginable hardships and suffering unaccompanied and separated children face, they remain extremely resilient.

“I will take care of them for the rest of my life,” says Rabiaa of her young nieces. “I want to see them well-educated.”

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