Children and Disasters

Issue #26: December 4, 2015

Note from NCDP Director, Dr. Irwin Redlener

Dear Colleagues:

Global Child Forum speakers join the Swedish Royal Family in Stockholm.

What a busy year 2015 has been for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. We have seen our work highlighted in relation to the anniversaries of Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and the Ebola crisis; we successfully launched the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative; we saw tragic episodes of gun violence in the US and overseas; the Syrian refugee crisis continues; and climate change and its potential sequelae of public health threats is more urgent an issue than ever. These events have once again highlighted the importance of keeping children and disasters on the agenda. To this issue, we have completed phase I of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supported study of NYC schools readiness to mitigate mass casualty events. Still, we face many challenges and have a long way to go. We hope this Bulletin has kept you informed and educated on the latest news, tools, and science to help improve the nation’s readiness to prevent and respond to large-scale disasters.

Dr. Irwin Redlener presenting on the child refugee crisis.

Just last week I participated in an event to talk about an urgent world problem—child refugees. On Thanksgiving Day, I joined hundreds of representatives of the world’s largest international relief agencies, non-governmental organizations and major corporations in Stockholm, Sweden to focus on multi-sectoral solutions to protect and promote children’s rights. Convened by His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf and Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden, a major and urgent topic of focus was the massive displacement crisis affecting 30 million children globally. I’d like to share with you my reflections and recommendations on the current crisis.

1. Children Caught in the Crisis

Today, half of the 60 million people displaced worldwide are children—the greatest number of total displaced people since World War II and the greatest percentage who are children in over a decade [1].

Accompanied or alone, children face tremendous risks of abuse, neglect, exploitation, trafficking and forced military recruitment. Many have witnessed or experienced violence and trauma. As the director of a center for refugee children in Germany recently told the New York Times, some of the children “have never held a coloring pen in their hand, but they’ve seen their own father beheaded” [2].

As children and families seek refuge, often by treacherous means, there is no guarantee of reaching safety and security as evidenced by those who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe [3]. Even when survival is assured, children are often denied fundamental opportunities to grow, learn, and thrive. Very few children have access to education, and many are receiving very informal and inadequate educational supports [4]. The combination of persistent, trauma, uncertainty, lack of protection and educational disruption may lead to a new generation of disaffected, unfulfilled, ideologically vulnerable young adults.

2. Drivers of Refugee Growth

What is driving this acceleration in the number of displaced people and its devastating impact on children? New conflicts are emerging while others are persisting. While displacement can result from persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations, the level of instability is exacerbated by poverty [5]. During the past five years alone, there were 15 new or re-emerging conflicts that increased population displacement – most of which remain unresolved. Consequently, fewer refugees or otherwise displaced persons can return to their home countries. Only 126,800 refugees did so in 2014, making it the lowest rate of return in 31 years [6].

3. State of Response

Current levels of forced displacement require an unprecedented scale of global response. Many capable governmental organizations, United Nations (UN) entities, and NGOs are working in very challenging contests to care for vulnerable people. But the resources are inadequate. Beyond long-term funding needs are the acute realities of the coming months—as evidenced by the UN recently noting it is $173 million short of what it needs just to help refugees survive a brutal winter in Europe [7]. As UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres said at the UN General Assembly on November 3, 2015: “The corresponding increase in humanitarian needs has overwhelmed the global response capacity. We need to face the truth: the international multilateral humanitarian community – UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, and NGOs – even when combining all its resources, is no longer able to provide the core protection and the basic life-saving assistance which the people we care for need and are entitled to receive.”

“Not investing in young refugees is a huge missed opportunity…it will be them who hold the keys to the future of their countries.”

– UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres

Even when funding is available, logistical and bureaucratic challenges can keep help out of reach. For example, in 2014 U.S. President Barack Obama committed to a new process whereby Central American children could apply for refugee status and avoid dangerous smugglers or self-guided treks. However, not a single child has come to the U.S. through the new program due to thick bureaucratic barriers [8].

4. Solutions

This crisis for children demands an urgent CALL TO ACTION.

Here’s what we can do:

  • Protect children and make sure their basic needs are met. If children lack proper supplies and services during the first years of life, they may suffer significant long-term physical, cognitive, and emotional consequences. We also must improve the speed and effectiveness of systems to ensure children’s survival and security.
  • Invest in children’s educational, social, and emotional well-being. Failure to protect, educate, and socialize children will delay the recovery and development of entire societies. Expanding the service delivery capacity of host governments is the best way to ensure the long term welfare of children and families throughout this crisis and beyond. Models of combined safety-net services, such as education-linked primary care, can help maximize child well-being.
  • Expand collaboration across sectors. Non-profit, governmental, and public resources are inadequate to meet the massive needs at hand. From supply chain linkages and money to expertise and political influence, the private sector in particular can help provide critical skills and resources. Cross-sectoral contributions can increase the scale and speed of recovery to match that of humanitarian need affecting millions of vulnerable children.

As a community dedicated to the mission of protecting and ensuring the well-being of children, thank you for your continued efforts and achievements. Please stay in touch with us in 2016 as we continue to make strides in our research, policy, and practice to keep children on the agenda by educating and bringing attention to these critical issues to key decision-makers and stakeholders. Have a wonderful holiday season.


Irwin Redlener, MD

[1] UNHCR 2014 Global Trends Report,
[2] NY Times, 28 Oct 2015, “Migrant Children, Arriving Alone and Frightened,”
[3] International Medical Corps, 5 Nov 2015, Mediterranean Crisis Situation Report #8
[4] UNHCR, 15 Oct 2014,  “Investing in the Future,”
[5] UNHCR 2014 Global Trends Report,
[6] Ibid.
[7] UNHCR Press Release, 5 Nov 2015,
[8] NY Times, 5 Nov 2015, “Red Tape Slows U.S. Help for Children Fleeing Central America”

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