05/16/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

Necessary and Sufficient: Protecting Syria's Children

About a week ago, a friend of mine, working with Syrian refugee children in Jordan, asked me a seemingly innocuous question: "What does it mean to act in the best interests of the child?" This answer, I thought, was a straightforward one. The best interests of the child means making welfare decisions that always benefit and keep the child safe. My answer sounded like that of an over-prepared law student aching to impress his professor with the fancy principles he memorized the night before. But, this wasn't law school and the question wasn't an academic one.

My friend took another stab, prompting me to think, not regurgitate: "In the context of this refugee crisis, what is in the best interests of the child?"

After searching for an answer equal to the depth of the question that still hung thick in the air, I countered by seeking refuge in the Harbor of the Befuddled Lawyer: "it depends." My parry was met not with a third thrust, but an observation: "many working in this crisis," she said, "view their responsibility toward children not so much as protecting children; but, rather, not causing them harm." Dare I tug on this thread, I wondered?

Here, many children forgo school in the name of supporting their families; here, children want to erase memories of things that cannot be erased, like the killing of a loved one; and, here, children ask adults unanswerable questions, like "when can I go home again?"

In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, where the resiliency of millions of children has been tested daily for some three years, we wrestle with what it means to protect children and attempt to divine how to act in the best interests of a group of vulnerable children jolted from the care-free joys of childhood.

Not causing harm to children, in some quarters, means reaching for time-tested, easily implemented child protection programs that one could be excused for labeling as "safe." Such programs breed normalcy: girls attend yoga classes and Girl Scout sessions in child friendly spaces; similar areas house boys playing in soccer leagues, on fields adjacent to makeshift gyms and classrooms, where English is taught by Syrian volunteers and the occasional American child protection advocate. At the Za'atari refugee camp one can find a performance of Shakespeare's "King Lear," not far from where photography and computer classes embody structure and routine--it is in these places, in these programs, that childhood again finds a stronghold.

This is child protection, make no mistake -- even if "safe." This form of child protection attacks the intransigent, omnipresent enemies of child labor, early marriage, and gender-based violence, among others. Donors fund these programs, evaluators praise their merit, and the media readily document them. To be sure, this form of child protection is necessary.

But, does it sufficiently fulfill our obligation to protect children?

This form of child protection lobs persistent collateral attacks at its enemies. It targets low-hanging fruit and then seeks to program away the problems. But, what of the direct assault?

Tried-and-true child protection programs serve a purpose but cannot stand alone to truly keep children safe.

Here, child labor persists in large part because Syrian refugee adults are generally prevented from securing gainful employment in Jordan; early marriage prevails in Jordan not just because it was practiced back home in Syria but also because impoverished families hope that someone else will take care of their children; and gender-based violence perseveres because predators find physical settings conducive to their vulnerability-exploitive power-plays. These issues are as complex as they are stubborn.

Each of them breeds in circumstances where the societal safety net is marked more by its holes than its coverage. Refugee families are often powerless, scattered, and consigned to the margins of society. The host government, viewed in its most positive light, can only do so much -- it is beset with an ever-expanding base of refugees that it strains to serve with an ever-diminishing pool of resources. In the most cynical light, one can argue that the host government primarily seeks to maintain what there is of the safety net for its citizens; ask it to do more, you ask for too much. So, the family is compromised, the government is stretched thin. The result: a security network replete with gaps. Who is responsible for filling these gaps? This responsibility undeniably falls to the humanitarian community. If not this community, then, who will fill the void?

This community already provides droves of child protection programs. And it is this same community that is also in the best position to directly intervene in the lives of children.

This community owes the children it protects decisive, durable, direct assaults at the problems that threaten the well-being of children. When it comes to child labor, this may very well mean engaging the government in policy discussions about how to make it politically palatable to employ refugees without endangering the livelihoods of its citizens. Are there jobs that Jordanian businesses need to fill but that cannot or will not be filled by Jordanians, for example? When it comes to early marriage, are there creative ways to incentivize impoverished families to forgo early marriage and bypass its devastating effects, particularly on girls? In a Northern Indian state, girls and their families receive cash incentives from the government, which is conditional upon daughters remaining unmarried until age 18. Might this model attack the problem at its core? And in the gender-based violence context, are there ways to provide greater lighting in communal areas and for personal use by girls, while discussing the feasibility of adding women to the camp's police force?

To ask more of humanitarian organizations already doing so much may not be fair. A refugee crisis is anything but fair, though. Donors want results; the media wants stories; the government wants greater support; and refugees want effective assistance. But, it is the children that need protecting. If we bungle protecting them, what else could possibly matter?