Migration of children

Migration of children

Child migration is a significant contemporary phenomenon. The number of children migrating around the world has risen significantly in recent years.  and it is likely to increase in both scale and salience as the mobility of young people grows, a result of more affordable travel, climate change, growing technology- mediated connectivity, increasing global inequality in the distribution of opportunity, security and access to employment, and the diffusion of a global cultural commons.

Research and policy discussion on child migrants commonly concentrate on children who have been coerced into cross national or transnational movement to work in situations which are either abusive or exploitative in themselves, or are abusive or exploitative because of the young age of the children. In contrast, the vast majority of independent child migration (that is where the child moves without his or her family) is children who move within their own countries or between contingents or nearby countries to work in a wide variety of occupations or to go to school.

Like the migration patterns of other age groups, child migration spans a broad range of phenomena. To start with the term itself, a child is defined in international law as “every human being below the age of 18 years, unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”. Data on youth migration do not always use this cut-off point, however, so reference is often made to “youth migration”. The broad term “migration” can cover both international and domestic human mobility – movement that is of short duration or lifelong – and both one-way and circular journeys. It can span the range from unproblematic family relocation to traumatic forced displacement caused by the violence of war, attempts at ethnic cleansing or State disintegration. The migration of children includes both journeys where children accompany adult relatives and situations where children need to undertake journeys alone; it includes situations that result in enduring improvements to the quality of children’s lives, in terms of educational opportunity or familial security, and situations where exposure to exploitation or risk leads to enduring trauma.

Child migration is not a new phenomenon. Children, both boys and girls, have always migrated with or following their families, to pursue opportunities or increase their safety away from home. Much of this migration is unproblematic. After a period of adjustment to a new context, and with the exception of situations where enduring racial or religious discrimination prevents this, most children, along with their families, integrate into their new societies. This article focuses on child migration that does not conform to that pattern – migration that is unsafe, irregular, exploitative. And it focuses on international migration. This is not to suggest that other aspects related to child migration are not important. However, the urgent need to better understand unsafe international child migration, in its various dimensions, stems from the fact that this aspect of child migration requires greater engagement and support from governments and international actors, to ensure children the protection they are entitled to.

Accounts abound over the centuries of the unmet protection needs of both male and female children separated from their families by wars, famine and environmental disaster; of trafficked children transported from home by exploitative masters (slave owners, religious orders, warlords); of unaccompanied children received after forced exile by unfamiliar, even unrelated careers (foster families, refugee agencies, and educational or correctional institutions). But, despite this long history, the challenge of protecting the safety and best interests of migrant children has been neglected.

One reason for recent increased attention to the phenomenon is its current magnitude. There were 37.9 million migrants under the age of 20 in 2019, 14% of the world’s migrants. This reality has urgent implications for educational, child welfare and migration authorities.

Types of child migration

Definitional confusion has long bedevilled discussion of child migration. Like the deficiencies related to data that are discussed in what follows, not all aspects of this challenge are specific to children. Facile dichotomies of forced versus economic migration are widely deployed in the migration field, and complicate the imperative of foregrounding rights considerations for vulnerable populations who may be in urgent need of protection. The dearth of child migration research from a child- rather than State-centric perspective contributes to this.

Like adults, children’s migration is not usefully divided into “forced” or “voluntary”, but rather viewed as a combination of elements of compulsion and choice, which may change over time. Because of the large variety of relevant situations, child migrants are now commonly referred to as “children on the move”, a phrase that has the advantage of not precluding a transition from one migrant category to another, but the disadvantage of obscuring the challenges arising after settlement.

Children embark on a broad range of different types of migration. Some migration journeys are highly gendered, such as the long-standing exploitative transportation of Nigerian girls to Europe to work in the sex industry, or the self-initiated migration of North African adolescent boys in search of opportunity. Many other migrations, the majority, include both boys and girls, though sometimes in different ratios, depending on country of origin. Much child migration, particularly outside the context of conflict or disaster, is safe and undertaken as part of a family unit. However, there is an increasing tendency for children to be involved in migration that jeopardises their safety and violates their rights. Examples of this type of migration include not only the obviously life-threatening forced migrations across treacherous routes – such as the Eastern and Central Mediterranean, where drownings are frequent – but also migrations where children are routinely exposed to physical and/or sexual violence. Unsafe migration also includes situations where children rely on exploitative intermediaries who take advantage of the need for migration assistance to extract labour or other types of services from children in their custody. The discussion focuses on these aspects of child migration.

Children may be internal or international migrants. Children whose migration is internal include internally displaced persons, seasonal migrants or rural-to-urban migrants. Internal migration may be cyclical, and it may be a prelude to international movement. All three categories comprise large groups of children, some of them in very precarious situations.

International child migration includes children who travel for family reasons, for safety or survival, at the behest of traffickers, for opportunity, and frequently for more than one of those reasons. This chapter focuses on unsafe child migration across borders. The following factors are particularly significant for understanding children’s distinctive needs, particularly in relation to safety:

(a) Who is the child travelling with? Is he or she accompanied by parents or caregivers (including customary caregivers), travelling unaccompanied (alone), or travelling separated (in the company of extended family members, strangers, traffickers or mere acquaintances)? A child might start the migration accompanied and then become separated from family, so that his or her needs change at different stages of the journey.

(b) Whether or not the child’s migration is authorised (by a visa or other legal provision). Children travelling without a regular migration status are at higher risk of exploitation, detention and other harms. Again, a child’s legal status can change from regular to irregular during migration, as when an asylum claim is refused but the child remains in the destination State without legal authorisation. The converse is also true, as when an undocumented child receives a legal status. An example is the procedure in the United States, whereby an unaccompanied migrant child who has been abused, abandoned or neglected is granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

(c) Whether the child is migrating to escape child-specific persecution, such as recruitment as a child soldier or gang member, child abuse or child marriage. Timely access to legal representation and guardianship is a protection priority in this type of migration situation.

(d) Whether the child is migrating following a family decision or without family knowledge or support. Many migrants from countries where adult responsibilities vest at an early age exercise their own decision- making agency. Afghan males, Eritrean male and female teenagers, and Central American boys and girls are cases in point. Acting like adults, even though classified as “children” under international law, many seek out opportunities to support themselves or their families by migrating. Children in West and Central Africa also move to pursue religious education, and are entrusted to a religious leader or figure who is meant to take care of their religious education and well-being, though often for lack of means end up being their exploiter. There is no international uniformity about the age when a child’s decision has legal force. Domestic standards vary, depending on the activity in question.

A self-initiated migration strategy can include entering into relationships with adults who facilitate cross- border movement in return for services rendered. Adolescents also adopt income-generating opportunities, including in deeply exploitative situations of labour and sex trafficking, to generate resources for migration. Because of the absence of legal migration routes, many adolescents eager to exercise their mobility have no safer alternatives. Europol reports that 28 per cent of identified victims of trafficking globally are children. States have obligations to address these hazardous situations, through robust search-and-rescue operations and livelihood opportunities that might forestall perilous journeys.

Two propositions about child migration are widely accepted: that the scale of child migration is increasing, and that the data on child migration are incomplete. In the absence of data limited to children, these data, which extend from 2 years to beyond 18, must be relied on. They draw on census data, one of the most reliable sources, and show a steady increase in absolute numbers, but a decline in the proportion of under-20s as a share of global migration.

Global migrants under 20 years of age

Global migrants under 20 years of age

Share of global migrants under 20 years of age

Share of global migrants under 20 years of age

The most recent global estimate for the total number of child migrants is approximately 31 million. This is a “stock” figure, one that represents the total number of people under 18 born in a country other than the one where they are living. Though it gives a snapshot of the magnitude of the issue, it is of limited accuracy and use, because it does not describe which country the migrant children have come from, what their legal status is, how long they have been where they are or what the children’s date of birth is.

UNICEF has calculated – using United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) data, combined with evidence from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and Eurostat – that approximately one in eight migrants is a child, the majority of them being regular migrants who travel with a regular status and the necessary protection. However, large numbers do not enjoy that safety. There are approximately 13 million child refugees, 936,000 asylum-seeking children, and 17 million children who have been forcibly displaced inside their own countries.

International migrants (millions) under 20 years of age, by region

International migrants millions under 20 years of age by region 

Share of international migrants under 20 years of age, by region

Share of international migrants under 20 years of age by region

Some regions (most dramatically, Asia) have experienced a sharp increase in the numbers of young migrants. They also highlight large differences between the regions in the proportions of children within their migrant stocks – nearly 30% in Africa, compared with less than 10%in Europe and North America.

Drivers and challenges of child migration

Just as with adult migrants, a wide range of factors help to explain why children migrate, and such decisions are rarely reducible to any single determinant. However, the migration of children – especially without parents or other adults – raises more pressing questions about the variable roles (or lack thereof) that children may have in migratory decisions. In addition, for children left behind after their parents migrate, it may be that “immigrant children are active agents in family reunifications and are able to (re)make and negotiate kin relations”.

It is important to keep in mind that the majority of the world’s child migrants are not refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing violence or escaping persecution. These children may migrate in order to pursue improved prospects in other countries, such as greater economic prospects and expanded access to educational opportunities. The role of family is deserving of special attention here. Family dynamics may themselves serve as push factors for migration, for example, when family breakdown (for example, loss of the breadwinner or the head of household) creates an economic necessity to move elsewhere. Dynamics within families may also lead to children, particularly adolescents, shouldering the migratory burden, because they are more physically capable of making what can be difficult journeys abroad. In some cases, families may also strategically decide that children have a higher likelihood of succeeding in the country of destination.

However, children may also migrate as the result of decisions to leave difficult conditions or exigent circumstances – conflict, persecution and discrimination, abuse and violence, and environmental disasters, are just a few examples of the factors that can drive child migration. Conflict is deserving of special attention, as children are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by armed forces or armed groups, among many other severe forms of abuse and exploitation. Indeed, conflict displaces millions of families and children each year.

It is important to recognise that not all child migrants lack agency in migratory decisions. The migration of adolescents may be less tied to the decisions of adults than the migration of younger children. For example, whereas for younger children, parents may face the decision to leave them behind with family members or bring them along with them, adolescents may be given a choice. While child migrants, whether adolescents or younger children, may have little agency in making migratory decisions in the context of conflict-induced migration, adolescents may have more agency than do younger child migrants in other contexts; for example, when migratory decisions centre on pursuing better economic or educational opportunities.

Protection challenges

Child migration creates many unique protection challenges, as child migrants face the “double vulnerability” of being both a child and a migrant. Empirically, child migrants are particularly vulnerable to violence, exploitation and trafficking; and concerns about these abuses intensify when children are migrating alone or become separated from their families. Even if children may initially migrate alongside their families, they can for various reasons become separated during their journey. As UNICEF describes, “violence may come in the form of state action (particularly during migration enforcement or detention), the general public (in the form of xenophobic attacks), employers (in various forms of child labor), other children (including bullying and abuse in schools) or within families (in the form of domestic violence)”.

Child forced labour and child forced marriage are among the most severe forms of exploitation to which children are uniquely vulnerable. When children or their families are forced to rely on smugglers, concerns about such exploitation becomes even more acute. Of course, while migrant smuggling and human trafficking are distinct, concern about the exploitation of children by smugglers often engenders concern about trafficking in children. Although global estimates of victims of trafficking are limited and challenging to collect, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 28 per cent of detected victims of human trafficking were children in 2014, with approximately 20% of victims being girls and 8 per cent being boys.

The death of child migrants makes even more urgent the need to address the protection challenges that attend child migration. According to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, there have been at least 46,000 migrant deaths since 2000, and many of those who died were children. In 2015, for example, the IOM estimates that roughly one out of every three migrant deaths in the Aegean Sea was of a child. Moreover, one quarter of the nearly 24,000 migrants who were rescued at sea in the Mediterranean by Médecins San Frontières (MSF) between May and December 2015 were children.

The disappearance of child migrants also demands our urgent attention. In 2016, the disappearance of an estimated 10,000 unaccompanied children in Europe captured international media headlines. In addressing Members of the European Parliament, Europol noted that while some of these children may have left in search of family in Europe, many are likely being exploited by smugglers, including for the purposes of labour exploitation (used for begging or being forced to commit crimes) and sexual exploitation.

Children separated from their parents and families because of conflict, forced displacement, or natural disasters are among the most vulnerable. it is imperative that governments and agencies collect data to identify these children and assist them. However, data availability on displaced unaccompanied and separated children is limited, and not all countries report these data, including countries with significant numbers of asylum claims such as South Africa and the United States of America.

For the first time, UNHCR began reporting on the number of unaccompanied and separated children who are registered as refugees. To date, reporting has been only on asylum applications, and unfortunately these data are reported in only a minority of countries. while efforts are being made, including with partner agencies such as UniCeF, to improve data on displaced children, current available data significantly underestimate numbers of both asylum-seeking and refugee unaccompanied and separated children. 

Asylum applications

Provisional data indicated that 45,500 unaccompanied and separated children sought asylum on an individual basis in 2017, with 67 countries reporting at least one such application. This number, while known to be an underestimate due to under-reporting, was lower than in 2016 when 75,000 were reported and in 2015 (98,400). Nevertheless, it was more than double the 34,300 applications from unaccompanied and separated children reported in 2014. Most applications were from children aged 15 to 17 (33,300), but a substantial minority of applications (12,200) were from unaccompanied and separated children aged 14 or younger.

The number of claims from unaccompanied and separated children in 2017 was the greatest in Italy with 9,900 claims, a 68% increase from 2016 when 5,900 claims were registered. The number of unaccompanied and separated children arriving by sea in that country was estimated at 15,800 in 2017, some 91% of all children. Thus, in 2017 a significantly larger proportion of unaccompanied and separated children arriving by sea in Italy submitted applications for asylum than in 2016, when an estimated 25,900 unaccompanied and separated children arrived. The greatest number of applications came from children from Gambia with 2,100 claims, followed by Nigeria (1,200), Bangladesh (1,100), Guinea (1,000), Senegal (900), Mali (800) and Côte d’Ivoire (800), Eritrea (600), Ghana (400), and Pakistan (200).

Germany received 9,100 claims from unaccompanied and separated children in 2017, just over a quarter of the number in 2016 when it received the most claims with 35,900. As in 2016, Afghan children submitted the most claims (2,200), but this is considerably lower than 2016 (15,000). The next most common nationalities were Eritrean (1,500), Somali (1,200), Guinean (900), Syrian (700), Iraqi (500), and Gambian (400).

Unaccompanied and separated children submitted 2,700 claims in Egypt in 2017, almost double the number submitted in 2016 (1,500). The majority of these claims were from Eritrean children (1,500) as well as Ethiopian (400), Somali (300), South Sudanese (200), and Sudanese children (100). Other countries with 1,000 or more claims from unaccompanied and separated children in 2017 included Sweden (2,700), Turkey (2,300), Greece (2,300), United Kingdom (2,200), Tanzania (2,100), Austria (1,400), France (1,200), Zambia (1,100) and the Netherlands (1,100).

Looking at country of origin, claims from unaccompanied and separated Afghan children were the most common (8,800) in 2017, about a quarter of the number in 2016 (26,700). The next most common country of origin was Eritrea (4,800) followed by the DRC (3,100), Gambia (2,600), Guinea (2,500), Somalia (2,400), iraq (2,100), Pakistan (1,900), Syria (1,800), Nigeria (1,500), Bangladesh (1,300), Ethiopia (1,200), and Côte d’Ivoire (1,100).

Registered refugees children and asylum-seekers children

For the first time, UNHCR operations reported on the number of unaccompanied and separated children, and in the future this data collection will be extended to reporting by governments. A total of 138,700 unaccompanied and separated child refugees were reported in 2017 by 63 operations where UNHCR maintains its registration database.

The largest number of unaccompanied and separated child refugees and asylum-seekers was reported in Ethiopia with 43,300 children, representing 9% of the entire child refugee population there. Most of these came from South Sudan (30,100), where children accounted for two-thirds of the refugee population; of these, unaccompanied and separated children comprised 9%. in addition, there were 6,300 unaccompanied and separated refugee children from Somalia, 5,600 from Eritrea, and 1,200 from Sudan.

Kenya reported 18,300 unaccompanied and separated refugee children in 2017. As with ethiopia, most of these originated from South Sudan (12,200), followed by Somalia (2,200), the DRC (1,500), and Sudan (1,400). in Sudan, 12,400 unaccompanied and separated children were reported. Again, South Sudan was the country of origin for the majority of these children with 10,700 registered, in addition to 1,500 from Eritrea. Tanzania reported 10,200 children with 7,900 from Burundi and 2,300 from the DRC. Other countries with high numbers of unaccompanied and separated child refugees reported included Cameroon (8,600), South Sudan (6,600), Egypt (4,300), Bangladesh (4,000), Jordan (3,900), Lebanon (3,700), Turkey (3,700), and Chad (3,200).

Unaccompanied and separated children from South Sudan (54,600) accounted for 39% of such children registered with UNHCR. This was due to both the high proportion of children in the South Sudanese refugee population (64%) and the relatively high proportion of these children who were unaccompanied and separated (11%). Other countries of origin for unaccompanied and separated child refugees in 2017 included Burundi (10,700), the DRC (10,200), Sudan (9,900) and Syria (9,900), Somalia (9,500), Central Africa Republic (9,300), Eritrea (8,700), and Myanmar (5,100).



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