Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Children’s voices critical for effective migration response

New study showcases the complex realities of migrant children and young people in the Horn of Africa
24 Mar 2021

(Florence, 13 April 2021) A new study highlights the importance of reframing the experience of children and young people based on their own motivations and lived experiences in order to adequately protect their rights.

UNICEF Innocenti’s new report Reimagining Migration Responses: Learning from children and young people who move in the Horn of Africa captures the experiences of 1,290 migrant children and young people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan in an effort to paint a more accurate picture of migration in the region.

“There was nothing good about my life before I left. If you don’t have an education, you don’t have a future. I left because I wanted to change my life and that of my family.”

– quote from 20-year-old Somali male interviewed for the study


A growing number of children and young people worldwide are migrating in search of a better life—1 in 8 international migrants is a child. In the Horn of Africa, migration has long been a key coping strategy, with children and young people leaving home, alone or with families or friends, for a variety of reasons—from job prospects, to joining loved ones, to ensuring their own safety. The study looks beyond legal definitions of “migrant” to document the real experiences of those who move in the region.

“Migration is often framed in terms of risk rather than opportunity,” explains Ramya Subrahmanian, Innocenti’s Chief of Child Rights and Protection. “The reality is that a lot of these children and young people decide to move or are compelled to move, despite being aware of the risks involved. For them, it’s a better alternative than staying at home.”

Visit our dedicated microsite on children on the move in the Horn of Africa 

The study lays bare the complexities of migration and calls for a multi-dimensional and adaptive approach to understanding and providing for the needs of children and young people who move. “International frameworks outline distinct categories of migration—refugee, migrant, asylum seeker, internally displaced person—but what this research shows is that young migrants define their own migration narrative and many do not ascribe to any of these categories,” Innocenti’s Director, Gunilla Olsson, explains. “Designing policies that take their views into account can help to ensure that children who move can access the services they need.”

A recently arrived Somali family looks out the window of a bus taking them to the Buramino refugee camp in the Dollo Ado area of Ethiopia's Somali Region. 


Not only are more integrated definitions required to protect children on the move, but other factors which make the journey unsafe should also be addressed. A lack of trust in authorities means children who move may resort to unsafe routes to avoid them, including using smugglers at the risk of exploitation and violence. Age and gender also play an important role in shaping children and young people’s migration experience. Access to services is already limited, but additional barriers, including language and location, further undermine the system’s ability to adequately provide for children and young people on the move and deny them the means to improve their lives in the long-term.

The research suggests three actions governments and stakeholders can take now to improve the situation for children and young people in the Horn of Africa. “First, we must put children’s migration experiences at the heart of policies. Listening to and including children’s experiences is crucial to better policymaking and investments,” explains Subrahmanian. “Second, we must protect and provide for all children, regardless of their reasons for migrating. And finally, we must better coordinate and integrate approaches to child protection services.”


Read the multi-country synthesis report. Explore the dedicated microsite. Stay tuned for individual country reports.