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Groups Call For Better Way To Aid Refugee Children

GOVERNMENT and human-rights groups from across the nation met in Washington this weekend to call for a stronger, more organized response to the thousands of unaccompanied refugee children fleeing their homes around the world.

Despite stepped-up efforts by government agencies and human-rights groups in the last decade, between 5 and 8 percent of the world's 18 million refugees are minors unaccompanied by their parents. ``People need to look at what has not worked,'' said Rose McCauley, a Liberian refugee. ``If something isn't working, then they should find something different that will.''

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Most children have been separated from their families because of war, chaos, and civil strife in their nations. They are abducted, lost, orphaned, or taken from their parents when parental rights are suspended.

Others leave their homes voluntarily after being abandoned, placed in the care of another adult, or enlisted in fighting units with or without parents' consent.

In order to meet the needs of such children, agencies need to improve efforts to identify refugee children once they arrive at refugee camps and then provide them with medical care, said John Williamson, a private consultant who worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But most children arrive at refugee camps without any records of their medical history, which makes it difficult to provide immediate medical attention, Ms. McCauley said.

Many minors also become severely weakened on the way to a refugee camp, and some die. ``We don't know how many die,'' she said. ``Those are unaccounted for.''

Others say it is difficult to track unaccompanied children until they arrive at camps since most are running from war-stricken areas. And when they do arrive, some are reluctant to give their names or ages. As such, it becomes difficult to find children's families, which makes it harder to reunite children with their parents - the goal of most organizations that work with unaccompanied refugees.

``We have to temper the impulse to rush, grab a child, and take care of it without first trying to find out where his or her family is,'' Mr. Williamson said.

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Most participants at the conference agreed that human-rights groups in Mozambique have been the most effective in dealing with young refugees. That program places children in the care of families who come from the same village.

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