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Children on the move

31 Aug 2016
Research Watch - Birchall commentary 2

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls on all member states to ‘ensure safe, orderly and regular migration with full respect for human rights and for the humane treatment of migrants, regardless of their migration status, and of refugees and internally displaced persons’.[i] Yet each week brings reports of failures to protect the rights of some of the most vulnerable groups of migrants and refugees. We hear of unaccompanied children’s perilous journeys to Europe and the United States. They are fleeing violence and conflict in their countries of origin but instead of being able to access safe migration routes and humane treatment, they are met by closed borders, criminal gangs, exploitation and indifference to their plight.[ii] Bilateral and third country agreements have been put in place in efforts to manage or reduce migration, but these agreements are reported to seriously threaten the human rights of migrants and refugees, particularly vulnerable groups such as girls and women. [iii]

© UNICEF/UN020005/Gilbertson VII PhotoReports of increasing forced displacement and escalating ‘refugee crises’ have been matched by perceptions of migration that incite fear, defensiveness and even violence, depicting refugees and migrants as uncontrolled and unwelcome crowds threatening national borders. These perceptions also disguise the fact that the majority of the world’s refugee population are not en route to rich, developed countries, but residing in neighbouring countries within their own region.[iv] When we group all refugees and migrants together indiscriminately, we miss out on vital information, we fail to address the specific needs of vulnerable groups, and we help to strengthen racism, xenophobia and indifference to the plight of others.

So why is it important to talk about age and gender equality? Why does policymaking on migration need to take an age- and gender-sensitive approach? Migration cannot be approached, understood or managed without recognising that, just like the populations of our societies, people on the move are all different. Without thinking about age and gender equality in the context of migration, we would never know, for example, that:  

  • Women and under-18s together make up around 70 per cent of the world’s internally displaced population.[v]
  • 75% of South Sudanese refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma camp are women and girls.[vi]
  • In 2015, 98,400 asylum applications by unaccompanied children were processed across 78 countries. This is the highest number of such applications on record.[vii]
  • Of the 23,160 asylum applications made in the EU in 2014 by those considered to be unaccompanied and separated children, 19,915 were boys.[viii]
  • Women and girls are vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence at all stages of migration journeys, even when they have reached places of supposed safety.[ix]

Without a gender and age sensitive approach to policymaking, we cannot fully understand the needs, experiences and motivations of refugees and migrants. Without it, policymaking cannot address migration and forced displacement at its root causes, and it cannot promote and enable the opportunities that migration offers.

Age, gender and migration journeys

Migration journeys take place within countries, regions and internationally. Decisions to migrate may be forced, in situations of conflict and disaster, or they may involve different degrees of choice and agency, and combinations of motivation and coercion. Characteristics such as gender and age (along with others such as ethnicity, health, sexual orientation and religion) play a strong role in influencing who migrates and how, and who stays where they are.

When thinking about the gender and age dimensions of migration, it is important to think not only about women and men, but also girls and boys. Migrant children might travel with their parents or guardians, with other adults or alone. They might migrate in regular or irregular ways, and move between categories such as unaccompanied, independent, internally displaced, asylum seeking, trafficked and smuggled.

In many countries, migration is seen as a rite of passage for young people. Children may migrate in search of work, education, or simply to mark a transition into adolescence or young adulthood. One example is Ghana, where there are established and relatively safe migration paths, travelled regularly by children, along with family, friends or relatives. In Tanzania, 23 per cent of households have male children and 17 per cent female children who have migrated elsewhere.[x] If opportunities are not available for children to migrate safely, for example in order to be unified with family members in other countries, they may make dangerous journeys, including those arranged by smugglers, during which they are vulnerable to abuse and violence.[xi]

The types of discrimination and persecution that children face in countries of origin are gendered in nature, and so are opportunities to move or escape. In Afghanistan, a country producing large numbers of unaccompanied asylum seeking teenage boys, boys are targeted by the Taliban for conscription.[xii] Afghan girls also face severe discrimination in different forms, but they are far less likely to make unaccompanied journeys. In Ethiopia and Sudan, increasing numbers of unaccompanied Eritrean children – mainly boys, but also some girls – are arriving in refugee camps. Fear of military conscription, lack of education, unemployment and desire to join a family member in another country are behind these children’s journeys.[xiii]

It is also important to consider who is left behind, either in countries of origin or in transit countries. The fact that the majority of the Eritrean refugee population in Ethiopia and Sudan are male indicates that more women and girls are staying behind. The disproportionate number of male unaccompanied asylum seeking children in Europe suggests that many girls remain in countries of conflict and instability.

Age, gender and life as a refugee or migrant

Once refugees and migrants reach a destination country, their gender- and aged-based experiences continue – in healthcare, education, employment and integration. Access to education is a problem for many migrant and refugee children and young people. In protracted situations of conflict, refugees may spend their whole childhood in displacement, without schooling. Displaced girls are even less likely to attend school than boys.[xiv] Migration to a more developed region does not automatically bring improved learning outcomes. In 2012, migrants aged 15-34 years in OECD countries were more likely than their native-born counterparts to be out of employment, education or training. Young immigrant women were particularly highly represented in this category.[xv]

Migrant children also experience poorer health outcomes. In 2013, 50 per cent of children treated by Medecins du Monde-International (an organization for whom 50 per cent of patients are undocumented migrants) in 25 European cities had not been vaccinated against hepatitis B, measles or whooping cough.[xvi] Women migrants in many countries experience unequal access to healthcare services – often as a result of institutional and language barriers. This is particularly problematic given women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare needs and the fact that they are often responsible for children’s health care.[xvii]

What can we do to address these issues? How can age and gender perspectives be integrated into policymaking on migration?

Policymakers have yet to bring the challenges and risks faced by migrating women and girls, as well as other vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied boys, to the forefront of the migration agenda.[xviii] Approaches and strategies for managing migration are often developed in what is seen as a gender and/or age ‘neutral’ way; they do not take into account the different experiences and needs of women, men, girls and boys. The effects of such approaches, however, are far from neutral in terms of gender and age. Women, girls, boys and older people tend to lose out when strategies are based on a male breadwinner model.

So what should policymakers be thinking about when developing national and regional approaches to migration that take age and gender equality into account? Below are some suggestions.[xix]

  • Impact assess all new policy on migration (and existing policies that have not been assessed in this way) to ensure that the human rights of people of all genders and ages are respected and that relevant international standards such as the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are adhered to. Ensure that migration policies and practices treat children as individual rights holders, whether they are accompanied by adults or not.

  • Create and maintain safe and legal channels for people fleeing conflict and persecution, and develop special measures to ensure that vulnerable groups such as girls, boys, women, older and disabled people can access formal migration channels and do not resort to life threatening sea and land journeys.

  • Discontinue the immigration detention of children, families with children and other vulnerable groups including survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and pregnant women. Cease the separation of families through detention.

  • Develop family reunification policies that take a rights-based approach and do not discriminate on the grounds of gender or age, or perpetuate existing inequalities. Implement these policies in a timely way, most especially for refugees and asylum seekers including unaccompanied children, so that family members can join their relatives safely and avoid being stranded in transit.

  • Ensure that migrant and refugee children and women have equal access to education, health and social services, and shelter regardless of residence status.

  • Work with local women’s and children’s organisations to develop mechanisms to detect vulnerable groups on arrival and provide tailored services such as women only and family/child spaces, and sexual and gender based violence protection and prevention services.

  • Build the capacity of state, regional and local governments, along with organisations working on the ground with migrants and refugees to collect, analyse and use data disaggregated by migratory status, gender and age (and the other characteristics specified in Global Goal 17.18). Ensure that this takes place in transit as well as destination countries, and in internally displaced populations too.

Of course this is not easy. There are many obstacles faced by those who wish to create, implement and evaluate gender- and age-sensitive migration policies that can have real impacts in practice. These include restricted resources, negative public opinion around migration, fast moving humanitarian situations and weak institutional capacity for mainstreaming equality issues.

But we cannot afford not to develop and implement these policies. Decision makers need to be aware of, willing to take action on, and not indifferent to, the plight of vulnerable groups of refugees and migrants. As part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the new Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) present an important entry point. In addition to Goal 10, which has a specific target on safe migration, there are nine other goals particularly relevant to migration.[xx] Policymakers should take this opportunity to look at migration in an intersectional way; recognising the specific experiences, needs and strengths of particular groups of migrants and refugees, and addressing these through inclusive, sensitive and evidence based policymaking. This is one step in a journey towards protecting the human rights of some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people around the globe.


[i] UNDESA (2015) Integrating migration into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, POPFACTS No. 2015/5, http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/ populationfacts/docs/MigrationPopFacts20155.pdf

[ii] Gentlemen, A. (2016) ‘Migrant children are being failed by UK, says Lords committee report’ in The Guardian, 26 July 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/26/unaccompanied-migrant-children-failed-uk-government-lords-eu-committee ; UNICEF (2016) Danger every step of the way: A harrowing journey to Europe for refugee and migrant children, www.unicef.org/emergencies/childrenonthemove/files/Child_Alert_Final_PDF.pdf ; UNICEF (2016) Neither Safe nor Sound: Unaccompanied children on the coastline of the English channel and the north sea, http://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/Publications/Neither-Safe-Nor-Sound/ ; UNHCR (2014a) Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection, http://www.unhcr.org/56fc266f4.html

[iii] Women’s Refugee Commission (2016) EU Turkey Agreement Failing Refugee Women and Girls, https://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/rights/resources/1357-eu-turkey-agreement

[iv] UNHCR (2016) Facts and figures about refugees, http://www.unhcr.ie/about-unhcr/facts-and-figures-about-refugees

[v] IDMC (2014) Girl disrupted, http://www. internal-displacement.org/assets/publications/2014/201403-global-girl-disrupted-pic-brief-en.pdf

[vi] UNHCR (2015) South Sudan Situation: Regional overview of population of concern, https://data.unhcr.org/SouthSudan/download.php?id=2436

[viii] Eurostat (2015) Asylum applicants considered to be unaccompanied minors by citizenship, age and sex annual data, http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=migr_asyunaa&lang=en

[ix] Birchall, J. (2016) Gender, Age and Migration: An extended briefing, BRIDGE, http://www.bridge.ids.ac.uk/news/new-publication-gender-age-and-migration-extended-briefing

[x] Kelly, A. (2010) Leaving Home: Voices of Children on the Move, Global Movement for Children, http://resourcecentre.savethechildren.se/sites/default/files/documents/4914.pdf

[xi] Crepeau, F. (2013) ‘The rights of all children in the context of international migration’ in IOM (2013) Children on the Move, http://publications.iom.int/books/children-move

[xii] Foreign Policy Journal (2015) ‘The Refugee Crisis and Afghan Asylum Seekers in Europe: Testimony of Youth’, Foreign Policy Journal, http://www.foreignpolicyjournal. com/2015/11/20/the-refugee-crisis-and-afghan-asylum-seekers-in-europe-testimony-of-youth/

[xiii] WRC (2013) Young and Astray: Unaccompanied Children from Eritrea, https://womensrefugeecommission.org/images/zdocs/Young_and_ Astray_web.pdf

[xv] OECD (2015d), Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In, http://www. oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/8115051e.pdf

[xvi] Keith, L. and LeVoy, M. (2015) Protecting undocumented children: Promising policies and practices from governments, Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), http://picum.org/picum.org/uploads/publication/Protecting%20 undocumented%20children-Promising%20policies%20and%20practices%20from%20 governments.pdf

[xvii] Aspinall, P. and Watters, C. (2010), Refugees and asylum seekers: A review from an equality and human rights perspective, Equality and Human Rights Commission, https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/research-report-52-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-review-equality-and-human-rights; Ghosh, J (2009) Migration and Gender Empowerment: Recent Trends and Emerging Issues, UN Development Programme, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdrp_2009_04.pdf; Orozco, A.P. et al (2010) Crossing Borders II: Migration and Development from a Gender Perspective, United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW), http://www.globalmigrationgroup.org/sites/default/files/uploads/gmg-topics/gender/UN-Women-Crossing-Borders-II-Conceptual-Framework_2010.pdf

[xviii] Bozrikova, T. and Niyazova, A. (2011) Major approaches and principles of mainstreaming gender into migration policy, UN Women, http://www.unwomen-eeca.org/module/project/img/204.pdf ; UNFPA (2015) Policy brief: female migrants, https://www.unitar.org/dcp/sites/unitar.org.dcp/files/uploads/unfpa_-_policy_brief_on_female_migrants.pdf

[xix] More detailed and extensive recommendations, as well as some examples of good practice, can be found in Birchall, J. (2016) Gender, Age and Migration: An extended briefing, http://www.bridge.ids.ac.uk/news/new-publication-gender-age-and-migration-extended-briefing

[xx] UNDESA (2015) Integrating migration into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, POPFACTS No. 2015/5, http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/populationfacts/docs/MigrationPopFacts20155.pdf