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New Study on Realities Faced by Children on the Move in the Horn of Africa

Research on Drivers of Movement Uncovers the Risks and Realities faced by Children on the move
02 Jul 2019

A woman and her child who have been forced to move because of drought walk towards a mobile medical unit being run in their settlement  near the town of Ainabo, Somaliland.

(3 July 2019) A new UNICEF Innocenti study about children on the move in the Horn of Africa provides critical insights into the motivations driving child migration. The study titled: “No Mother Wants Her Child to Migrate,” reveals the reasons why children move, their experiences during movement, what services are available for children on the move as well as the protective systems in place to support them.

This exploratory research is the first in a series of reports about children on the move in the Horn of Africa aimed at improving understanding of the complex vulnerabilities and drivers of children on the move. The long term research programme will provide UNICEF country programmes with key insights to improve protective programming for children on the move.

“This report represents an important shift towards placing children’s experiences and voices at the heart of the current global focus on migration,” said Ramya Subrahmanian, Chief of Child Rights and Protection at UNICEF Innocenti. It underscores our fundamental belief that children must be treated as ‘children first’ – migrants, refugees or displaced persons second. All children, no matter what their status or location, have the right to protection as envisioned through the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” she added. 

The study draws on 282 qualitative interviews and focus group discussions with children and parents on the move. Data has been uncovered on problems encountered in transit and how responses can be improved. Interviewees included internally displaced persons, refugees, migrants and returnees.

Why do children move?

Recent assessments by IOM suggest that that there are close to a million internally displaced persons in Somaliland and it is estimated that approximately 450,000 of this number are children. In Somaliland, children are moving from rural to urban areas in response to poverty, persecution, disruption of families and/or human rights abuses, war and environmental conditions, such as devastating drought.

Other children choose outward migration, usually to Europe, in order to escape unemployment and lack of access to education. Tahriib, is an Arabic term describing the pattern of young people on the move in search of a better life. Children leave for various reasons and usually without the consent or knowledge of their parents.

How do children move?

The study found that the movement of children and young people is usually facilitated by smugglers who are identified through their networks of friends who have either undertaken the journey or know someone who has. Technology and social networks help provide information to children who want to move.  The research revealed that smugglers and traffickers operate on a ‘go now, pay later’ basis. Children endure harsh conditions, are often denied basic provisions (such as food and water), travel long distances by foot or by crowded cars and boats.

All children on the move in Somaliland, regardless of their particular struggles, face significant difficulties. The study reveals children on the move are likely to be poor, undocumented and unable to access education or other services. They are also more likely to be victims of violent crime, including sexual and gender-based violence (GBV), abuse and exploitation - before, during and after they move.  Those that make a move are likely to be held for ransom, beaten and/or abused to compel their relatives to pay.  If children leave without parental permission, which is often the case, they can be arrested by Somaliland authorities internally and by immigration authorities abroad. Even once they’ve reached their destination children face indefinite detention, long immigration or asylum procedures and discrimination.

Child protection: gaps in service systems

The study found that formal child protection systems and multi-sectoral services are not meeting the needs of children on the move. The study found there is a lack of data on children on the move which hampers the ability of social workers to identify, support and protect vulnerable children from well-financed, organized traffickers. The report also finds that we need to do more to work with the children to understand their needs and provide services that support the agency and objectives of children on the move.

“There is a significant need for further research to unpack this diversity and complexity in order to better understand how children on the move can be effectively protected from violence, harm and exploitation,” Subrahmanian said.

“UNICEF Innocenti is now expanding the research programme to more countries in the Horn of Africa. We have commenced multi-country quantitative and qualitative studies which will identify the needs and experiences of children, identify the gaps they face in terms of services and work to identify programming strategies that can address these gaps. We are working closely with country and regional offices to ensure that the research supports these efforts in a concrete and meaningful way,” she added.