Vast Increase In Number Of Unaccompanied Child Refugees, UNICEF Reports

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) released a report regarding the nature of child migration this week, highlighting a drastic increase in the total number of unaccompanied migrant or refugee children worldwide – that is, those travelling alone. The report, “A Child is a Child: Protecting Children on the Move from Violence, Abuse and Exploitation,” shows a nearly five-fold increase in the number of unaccompanied or separated children between 2010 and 2016. Specifically, the figures rose from 66,000 children in 2010 to 2011, to 300,000 in the two-year period from 2015 to 2016.

The figures represent those unaccompanied children who either applied for asylum or were registered upon arrival at state borders across 80 different countries during this period. As a result, the report also noted that the number of unaccompanied child refugees is therefore very likely to be much higher than the 300,000-person estimate provided in the report.

Justin Forsyth, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, noted in a press release that “one child moving alone is one too many, and yet today, there are a staggering number of children doing just that – we as adults are failing to protect them.”

The broader picture of child migration is bleak. While the motivating factors driving child migration vary – from fleeing conflict or poverty, pursuing a better life, or following relatives who have already fled their home country – the fact remains that these individuals are at an even greater risk when travelling alone.

Of major concern is the susceptibility of unaccompanied child refugees or migrants to being exploited. UNICEF’s report notes that often unaccompanied children are exploited by smugglers or traffickers who can force them into slavery or prostitution, after assisting them across borders. Citing an International Organisation for Migration study, A Child is a Child highlights the reality of the exploitation of child migrants, noting that of children between ages 11 and 17 who journeyed the popular Central Mediterranean sea migration route to Europe, three-quarters of them had been exposed to at least one of several indicators of human trafficking.

Additionally, the conditions unaccompanied children are exposed to upon arrival in their destination or transit countries are often dangerous and sub-standard, including being placed in detention centres, overcrowded camps or left to fend for themselves on the streets.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) extends to universally protect all children, irrespective of their legal status or state. Yet in the case of unaccompanied or separated child migrants, the CRC often fails to protect these vulnerable individuals who fall through the cracks of the Convention, and therefore “children on the move often suffer violations of their rights because of their migrant status,” claims the UNICEF report.

Aside from the data related to the frequency of unaccompanied child refugees globally, A Child is a Child also indicates that children constitute a significant proportion of the total number of refugees worldwide, with figures indicating that by 2015 half of the world’s migrant population – or 8.2 million individuals – were children. This represents a significant increase from the 4.6 million refugee children five years prior in 2010.

In the midst of a severe global refugee crisis, it is clear that more must be done to ensure the safety of any individual who is forced, or compelled, to seek refuge in other countries outside of their country-of-origin. However, it is of utmost importance to remember that child migrants and refugees are perhaps the most vulnerable of an already vulnerable population – let alone those who are making the treacherous and often dangerous journeys alone.

Stronger mechanisms, such as those protection measures for unaccompanied migrant children implemented by the Italian Parliament under the ‘Zampa’ law earlier this year, should be widely instigated to ensure the safety and security of unaccompanied children who are migrating or seeking refuge. Such measures, as identified in UNICEF’s agenda for action in A Child is a Child, could include protecting children from exploitative trafficking networks, working to ensure refugee families are not separated, and finding safe alternatives to housing children in detention centres. A swift solutions-based approach is needed to ensure the thousands of unaccompanied child migrants identified in UNICEF’s report are safe and benefit from the protection of their rights under the CRC while seeking a better life.