Millions of children in need of humanitarian assistance heading into new year

The sheer magnitude of the situation facing huge numbers of children in the new year is 'heartbreaking,' writes David Morley.

Magnitude of situation facing huge numbers of world's children in 2020 is 'heartbreaking'

Children stand next to a metal barrier as newly arrived refugees and migrants wait to be registered at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Nov. 27. (Elias Marcou/Reuters)

This column is an opinion by David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

We are entering the final year of what has been one of the worst decades for children. War, disease and extreme weather events are robbing them of their right to simply be a kid – to have a safe, healthy and carefree childhood.

In far too many communities around the world, sounds of youngsters laughing and getting into mischief are being replaced by silence. It doesn't have to be that way.

This month, UNICEF launched Humanitarian Action for Children 2020, a report on the world's emergencies. It highlights some of the key challenges children are facing around the world: severe malnutrition, conflict, infectious disease, climate change, and access to education.

Children displaced by crises are also vulnerable to increased harm, including gender-based violence, recruitment as soldiers, exploitation, and trafficking.

A boy holds a rifle as he attends a rally of Houthi movement supporters to mark the Ashura in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sept. 10. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

The sheer magnitude of the situation is heartbreaking.

The report identifies 59 million children in 64 countries who are living in crisis zones and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, including 2 million children with disabilities. These are the highest levels since we began keeping records.

The projections for the year ahead are just as dire.

The main causes are threefold – conflict, climate change and major outbreaks of disease.


The number of armed conflicts is at a three-decade high, with many civil wars engulfing entire countries.

More than 30 million children are caught in the middle.

Yemen has been a battleground for more than four years.

Fighting has been going on for six years in both the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Syria's civil war is now in its ninth year.

And these conflicts have no end in sight. Some have lasted so long that many kids are growing up only knowing war.

Displaced Yemeni seven-month-old baby Mohammed Hussein, suffering from malnutrition, is brought by his mother to be checked at a hospital in Yemen's conflict-ridden northwestern Hajjah governorate. (Essa Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)

Top priorities in these war-torn regions include providing children with protection, safe water and sanitation, health care and nutrition. And the need is great.

In the coming year, for example, UNICEF expects it will need to treat 5.1 million children for acute malnutrition, provide 4.5 million children and caregivers with mental health and psychosocial support, and distribute emergency cash assistance to 1.7 million families to meet their most urgent needs.


Immediate responses to crises in the year ahead must also be balanced with the longer-term needs of children, most importantly their education, which is also under attack.

During disasters, schools are often used as shelters or distribution centres, since they are usually among the strongest structures.

In conflict zones, they are increasingly becoming targets.

Afghan schoolchildren study at the destroyed Papen High School in Deh Bala district of Nangarhar province in July. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

More than 3,000 schools have been closed in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in the past three years because of violence and insecurity.

Kids are incredibly adaptable, but in any emergency, getting them back into a classroom as quickly as possible is essential. Education to help them reach their potential is obviously important, but letting them be with their friends in a safe space also gives them a return to normalcy.


As if wars and conflict weren't enough, millions of children are also threatened by outbreaks of highly contagious and dangerous diseases.

Major outbreaks are now hitting the most vulnerable in conflict zones, greatly complicating the ability of aid agencies to respond.

A Ugandan health worker administers Ebola vaccine to a child in Kirembo village, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Kasese district of Uganda, in June. (James Akena/Reuters)

The current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second-largest ever recorded and the first to occur in the middle of a conflict zone. There are 3,000 confirmed cases, including more than 900 children.

Measles has also become a threat to children despite safe and affordable vaccines. As with any public health campaign for children, educating the adult decision-makers is the key to eliminating this deadly threat.


Climate change is also affecting the most vulnerable.

More than 500 million children live in areas that have experienced extreme flooding, while 160 million live in regions that are subject to severe drought.

And the number of extreme weather events keeps rising. Mozambique was hit by back-to-back cyclones earlier this year, for example, and rebuilding will take years.

Children help clean the makeshift migrant camp after major rainfall hit the island of Chios on Dec. 11, where thousands of refugees and migrants live in squalid conditions without water and electricity. According to government figures, hundreds more are arriving daily. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

Regions like the Sahel in Africa, where livelihoods rely on agriculture, grazing and fishing, are especially susceptible to the effects of climate change.

Solutions demand a long-term commitment. The positive news is that humanitarian organizations have made tremendous progress working with host governments in areas likely to experience extreme weather and flooding, helping to build more resilient communities and better prepare for disasters.

Still, the threats children are facing are overwhelming. The amount of funding for emergencies that UNICEF projects it will need in 2020 is $4.2 billion US, a staggering 3.5 times the amount required in 2010, underscoring how frightening the world has become for young people.

But as someone who has worked in the international humanitarian sector for going on four decades, I refuse to be discouraged. We cannot give up.

The international community, governments and civil society need to come together to protect and defend children's rights.

The government of Canada is playing a global leadership role in prioritizing education for children in conflict zones and other protracted humanitarian crises. But as a nation we must do more to help children around the world.

People in this country clearly care about children's welfare. I am confident Canadians will rise to the challenge and defend, for every child everywhere, the right to a safe and healthy childhood.

  • This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.


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