Catherine Stubberfield is one of many Australians working for UNHCR around the world. She shares her insights from her work across East Africa, on the frontlines of protecting refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries.

All newborn babies carry with them the hopes and wishes of their parents and families for their future. In East Africa, these feelings are often the direct inspiration for children’s names.

Working in Ethiopia with UNHCR for the first time many years ago, I remember being struck by the unique joy of meeting baby Miracle, baby Blessing and baby Asante (Swahili for ‘thank you’). The names were an expression of happiness and gratitude that seemed so fitting for such a life moment. Wherever we are around the world, the desire for our children to be happy and healthy is universal.

Other families, though, were struck instead by tragedy.

A few months after I started work at the refugee reception centre, a young Congolese woman, Charlotte, came in to our office. Our staff knew her well – having survived serious violence and trauma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), she was awaiting resettlement to the United States.

Charlotte walked into the room quietly, greeting me and the interpreter. Sitting down, she almost whispered a single sentence. The interpreter paused for longer than usual. “I just came to tell you that baby Grace died.” She looked almost frozen by grief, but did not cry. Much later it occurred to me that she had seemed distraught, but not terribly shocked.

A Burundian refugee mother with her child in Kavimvira transit centre, DRC. ©UNHCR/F.Scoppa

In the DRC, where UNHCR leads the response for refugees and internally displaced people, there are far too many stories like this.

Compounding each individual tragedy is the fact that the vast majority of deaths are preventable. Breathing problems, infection and hypothermia are the three biggest killers.

As someone born more than three months prematurely, I would almost certainly not have survived in the DRC.

Part of the reason the DRC has a high level of infant deaths is the number of people who have fled conflict and violence – often relocating to remote camps or settlements. More than 4.5 million Congolese citizens are displaced within their own country. It’s the equivalent of every single person in Perth and every single person in Brisbane being displaced – and then some.

As well as this, nearly half a million refugees have fled into the DRC from the wider region, including the Central African Republic, and are also living in makeshift dwellings and settlements. National services are overwhelmed, and healthcare can be expensive – or simply not available.

One week old Mireille was lucky enough to be born with the help of a midwife. Her mother fled from violence in Central African Republic and gave birth at UNHCR Mole refugee camp in the DRC. ©UNHCR/Sebastian Rich

More than 96,000 infant deaths in the DRC each year can feel like an overwhelming problem. But solutions are surprisingly simple for most. High impact, cost effective measures with the ability to save babies in the first hour of life include a clean birth environment, trained birth attendants, and education for new mothers on the three essentials for the initial ‘golden hour’: skin-to-skin contact, umbilical cord care and breastfeeding.

Beyond the immediate priority of giving every baby the best possible odds of survival, these critical steps also empower mothers and families. UNHCR is urgently working on these interventions, but as of today, the needs for humanitarian assistance to refugees and displaced people in DRC for this year are only 11 per cent funded.

It is almost impossible for us to imagine in Australia what it would be like to give birth and care for an infant in such conditions. Here, even in the early 1980s, universal healthcare was able to keep me alive. To know that so many newborns still die from easily avoidable causes is heartbreaking – the most basic services and care could save hundreds of thousands of new lives. Every baby should have the chance to grow up.

Catherine Stubberfield is currently External Relations Officer for the UNHCR Regional Representative Office in Canberra.

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