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With world leaders gathering at the United Nations for high level deliberations on the global migration crisis, the need for solid evidence to develop better policies on child migration has never been greater. As a response, UNICEF is releasing a new report, “Uprooted: The Growing Crisis for Migrant and Refugee Children,” that includes comprehensive data on child migrants and refugees around the world. In addition UNICEF Innocenti has devoted the latest edition of Research Watch to the theme: Children on the Move. Rayyan Sabet-Parry, Consultant at UNICEF Innocenti, spoke to Bina D’Costa, a contributor to the new Research Watch portal.
Rayyan Sabet-Parry: What are the main drivers pushing children to migrate, and why do we need to understand them better?
Bina D’Costa: Children cross borders – within and outside states – for different reasons and in varying circumstances, both voluntary and involuntary. In a broad sense, economic, socio-political and environmental motivations influence children to migrate. Poverty has traditionally been one of the main drivers of migration of children, particularly from rural to urban locations. However, there is now a recognition that the poorest cannot so easily migrate to another country. Children are also trafficked to provide labour, forced to move because of political violence and environmental disasters.
Although internal/domestic migration of children occurs persistently, it is perceived, albeit incorrectly, as ordinary, everyday migration. On the other hand, international migration of children is now more evident and because of conflict induced migration, understood as distinct, dangerous and traumatic. The mobility pathway deeply impacts on a child’s development and the future of our world. We need to understand the migration patterns, because it matters.
RSP: We see a lot of coverage of unaccompanied children in migration. Are more children migrating on their own?
BD: This multifaceted and global humanitarian phenomenon involves children who are either sent by their families for protection, or are compelled to move following a loss of family in a crisis. Unaccompanied and separated children have long been a feature of migration flows. However, historically, in the context of official resettlement programs in developed countries, they have not been associated with refugee status. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, scores of children, including unaccompanied and separated children, started to arrive in Europe. Catastrophic events in different parts of the world have prompted many children to leave their homes alone. In part due to a lack of understanding of how serious this phenomenon is and in part due to the absence of any coordinated formal responses from the states and the international organizations, the horrific ordeals of unaccompanied and separated children have been largely overlooked.
Recent research and advocacy has turned its attention to the experiences of children travelling alone. Because of sympathetic media coverage, and increasing interest from regulatory bodies, we now know that the numbers of unaccompanied children to developed countries, particularly the United States and Europe, has escalated dramatically due to poor economic conditions and protracted conflicts. Children are also crossing international borders at much younger ages. The number of unaccompanied girls has also been increasing at an alarming rate.
RSP: Why is research on children migrants so important right now?
BD: Child-sensitive and child-responsive research is incredibly important and could explain the dynamics of migration not captured by more general research on migration. Although vast data now exists chronicling the lives of migrants, we have less understanding of the movement of young people. Historically, receiving and origin societies have been more supportive of the migration of children and youth for a range of reasons. At one end of the spectrum, societies often have an exploitative interest in child migrants, who are valued for their labour, and at the other end, there exists genuine compassion and recognition that the international community must commit together to support child migrants.
RSP: How can better evidence improve the situation for children in migration?
BD: Children should be given the opportunity to become productive and valued members of the society through careful adaptation and integration which respects their cultural diversity and be sensitive to the profound trauma that these children have suffered. We have limited literature that includes perspectives of child migrants. Evidence based research can also help us distinguish between the needs and protection strategies for the hyper-visible and vulnerable child migrants from the independent and invisible child migrants.
RSP: What are the main challenges for legal systems in terms of protecting the rights of children in migration?
BD: The failure of legislative measures to address the specific circumstances and vulnerabilities of children, the lack of sincere commitment of parties, particularly those caught up in conflicts and a failure to form strong and unified regulatory regimes capable of dealing with child migrant rights are among some of the major challenges in protecting children. Legal systems focus on protection from the most egrarious violations of children’s rights and fall short in providing for children’s wellbeing and development. The reach of laws is often poor due to a lack of awareness, lack of respect and lack of enforcement and because children are uniquely susceptible to exploitation. Children are often harmed by those who should be protecting them. Child migrant agencies are frequently ignored or manipulated in the interest of state parties.
RSP: How do you end the detention of children seeking refugee status? What are the alternatives?
BD: States must ensure humane and appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect children seeking sanctuary. We need to recognize that one of the most inhumane ways of assessing a child’s refugee status is housing children in detention facilities. Advocacy and evidence based research reveals the harmful consequences of detention on children. The outputs of such research need to be communicated effectively to state parties.
There are alternatives to prolonged and mandatory detention. Children could be provided with community care following appropriate assessments of risks and benefits. Usually community care is far easier and cheaper, and involves fewer risks to the mental health and wellbeing of children.
RSP: How can we protect child refugees and migrants from exploitation and violence?
BD: Approximately half of the 19 million registered refugees globally are children and youth. Advocating for protection becomes a much more complex process for children who are forced to flee their homes and have their citizenship stripped. Almost without any exception all child refugees experience severe stress and anxiety. Many children, who are forced to flee are taken by armed groups and can be used to perpetrate violence against others.
Four specific advocacy approaches are critical in ensuring the protection of child refugees: publicly naming those who target children; establishing children’s ‘peace zones’; lobbying for a more rigorous normative framework of protection; and establishing international alerts to ensure that states and non-state actors comply with existing humanitarian and human rights norms.
RSP: Finally, is there a role for research in making societies more welcoming and receptive to child migrants?
BD: We need systematic analyses to understand the dynamics of child migration. There also has to be close collaboration between researchers, policymakers and activists allowing us to express the nuances of child-sensitive and child-responsive migratory processes. Research, in particular evidence-based research, can persuade international, regional and state actors that the migration of children is a humanitarian issue not just a political issue. Research can dispel myths and anxieties surrounding migration, and could help design strategies that are effective in resettling children. Good research can also explain to advocates for child migrants how and why certain political decisions are taken, and support the explicit integration of children’s rights and protection in the migration agenda.
Bina D’Costa is Fellow, and Director of Teaching, in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, the Australian National University. Rayyan Sabet-Parry is a consultant with UNICEF Innocenti. This interview was published 5 September 2016.