Throughout the history, migration has been a part of human experience. For many people, including children and their families, leaving home to settle in a new community is a milestone in the search for educational or employment opportunity. For some, migration is a driving force towards a better life, adventure or a curiosity about new lands, people and cultures. Around the world, however, children are also forced or uprooted from their homes by factors including war, poverty, persecution and climate change. Globally, an estimated 50 million children migrated across borders or were forcibly displaced in 2015. More than half – 28 million children – fled the horrors of conflict, violence and insecurity. For millions, the journey to safety was worrying.
Migrant and displaced children face many challenges in transit and at destination. Far too often, these children are held in detention centers, separated from family members, deprived of education and proper medical care, forced to work in hazardous jobs, married off as children or pushed into the arms of smugglers or traffickers. The obstacles presented at each phase in the migration journey – origin, transit and destination – are not inherent. They are obstacles created by policies, practices, behaviors and attitudes that put children in danger. Removing these barriers is a matter of choice – a political choice to protect vulnerable children and allow them the chance to benefit from the opportunities that migration can offer. Deciding to protect and care for refugee and migrant children throughout their journey is the right thing to do for children.
The UNICEF publication “Beyond Borders: How to make the global compacts on migration and refugees work for uprooted children” demonstrates that the task of protecting and caring for children throughout their journeys as refugees and migrants is possible and practical. The report also shows that protecting migrant, displaced and refugee children is not only right in principle; it is also right when put into practice. It can be achieved when governments work hand in hand with their neighbors, host communities, volunteers, and local and international partners. The cases presented in this report delineate some key factors that can assist governments and their partners transform the agenda for action into practice.
The report contains six chapters. The first chapter highlights the importance of investing in strong national child protection systems to protect uprooted children from exploitation and violence. Though there are few reliable global data on violence against uprooted children, empirical and anecdotal evidence indicates that it is widespread. In a 2014 survey of reported cases of trafficking, more than a quarter of the victims were children. This report urges governments to provide appropriate and integrated child protection care and services for all refugee and migrant children starting when they first arrive at the border. As the example from Sweden shows, protection begins the moment a child is identified and continues as local child protection services provide a dedicated case worker to each unaccompanied child. The case studies presented in this chapter also underline the importance of cross-border cooperation and mechanisms that protect children, regardless of where they are.
Chapter 2 examines the political commitment to moving progressively towards ending the practice of detaining children because of their immigration status. In countries and regions around the globe, children are detained because of their migration status. At least 100 countries – from low-income to high-income countries – detain children for immigration reasons. Detention harms children’s health and well-being and undermines their development. With the support of UN agencies and civil society organizations, governments need to identify and implement alternatives to detention that respect children’s rights, are enacted in their best interests, and allow refugee and migrant children to remain with their family members or guardians while their immigration status is resolved.
The third chapter underscores the importance of birth registration and reunification mechanisms to keep families together and give children legal status. There are many reasons that refugee and migrant children become separated from parents or caregivers. Too often families are separated during the migration processes, especially when a child does not have documentation, such as a birth certificate. Separation from family can leave children more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation or neglect when they are travelling and when they arrive at their destinations. States need to extend their existing birth registration services to include migrant and refugee children, take measures to provide multiple avenues for granting migrant and refugee children residence status, and enact explicit legal provisions that confirm children’s right to participate in the decisions that concern them.
Chapter 4 highlights the importance of comprehensive care and access to services that help uprooted children stay in school and stay healthy. Children who have been uprooted from their homes have the same needs and rights (i.e. better health, education and social services) as all children. But for many refugee and migrant children, legal, procedural, financial, cultural and social barriers keep them from accessing services. A child’s migration status should never be a barrier to accessing services. Governments should take concrete measures to: i) Provide all refugee and migrant children with protection, shelter, nutrition, education, water and sanitation; ii) Offer psychosocial care to those who have experienced upheaval or trauma; and iii) Encourage cross-border collaboration and cooperative involvement of all development and humanitarian response sectors. The fifth chapter draws our attention towards the causes that uproot children from their homes to ensure that migration takes place by choice, and not necessity. For too many children, migration is the only escape they see from the pervasive violence or protracted crises that surround them and the only alternative to a future of limited learning and job opportunities. Poverty also drives children to seek better opportunities. Indeed, the reasons children leave are often interlinked and complex. To provide children with peace, safety and opportunity in their communities of origin, international and national efforts need to focus on resolving protracted conflicts, addressing the breakdown in the rule of law and combating the pervasive violence that blights too many communities.
The last chapter of the report highlights the importance of actively supporting integration and inclusion through collective action to protect uprooted children from discrimination and xenophobia. Despite its long history, refugee and migrant children are still often welcomed by discrimination and xenophobia – during their journeys and in their new surroundings. In Germany, for example, there were 3,767 attacks on refugee seekers in 2016. However, there are many initiatives underway around the world that provide children with assistance as they navigate the complications of integrating into new surroundings. In New York, local government, community leaders, religious organizations, NGOs and the private sector have come together to welcome migrants and refugees with a range of support services designed to integrate them. We must remember that a child is a child, no matter why she leaves home, where she comes from or where she is and how she got there. They shouldn’t fear xenophobia or discrimination. They should be able to feel at home – wherever the home is.n
The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org