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30 Years of Research on Migration and Displacement at Innocenti

Reflections and Looking Forward
Migration Retrospective cover

Evan Easton Calabria, Josiah Kaplan and Ramya Subrahmanian


As global displacement rises, there is a pressing need to understand and respond to the migration experiences of children. This article provides key insights from a comprehensive review of Innocenti’s research on migration and displacement over the last 30 years. It provides a foundation on which Innocenti’s current evidence strategy on child refugees and migrants is being built, blending past learning with research on pressing current and future needs and trends. 



Today almost 37 million children are displaced worldwide the highest number ever recorded. These figures are consistent with the vast scale of global displacement, with over 100 million people in the world displaced due to war and conflict, extreme weather events, and other crises. Displacement has a compounding negative effect on the ability of families to access services and enjoy the stability needed to foster the healthy development and well-being of children.

The rate and impact of displacement is set to continue as conflicts remain protracted and climate hazards grow in frequency and severity. Concerted action is urgently needed to mitigate existing risks and identify the most effective ways to reduce disruptions to services, livelihoods, and child and family well-being. There is a pressing need for data and evidence to guide effective aid responses; identify good practices for guaranteeing the rights and ensuring the protection, and well-being of children engaged in migration and displacement; and to enable children’s lived realities to be heard and understood. Notably, this is needed not only for the world's displaced children but the estimated 31.7 million migrant children globally, who often lack similar safeguards and access to services as those who are displaced.

Since 1992, UNICEF Innocenti – Office of Global Research and Foresight has produced a wide array of rigorous, mixed-methods research studies on child migration and displacement in diverse countries and contexts. Within this work, studies have focused on the many different statuses that intersect with migration and displacement, ranging from refugee and internally displaced children, those with irregular migration statuses, and others who fall under the broader category of ‘voluntary migrant.’ Through research findings and policy recommendations Innocenti’s work on these varied populations has reaffirmed that, regardless of status, migrant and displaced children are first and foremost children with rights enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  

Over 50 Innocenti publications have focused on topics including the protection and wellbeing of unaccompanied minors, how refugee children are situated within global and national policy frameworks, and ways that migrant child protection risks are related to exploitation, trafficking, and labour. Looking back over these 30 years of evidence-building, what are some of the key lessons from Innocenti’s child migration and displacement research – and where should this work lead us in the future?  


What have we learned?   

The impacts of migration on child well-being are complex, varied, and contextual   

Migration is often viewed through simplistic and polarised lenses that position it as a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ experience, especially when discussing child migrants. However, the impacts and outcomes of migration on children are complex, varied, and contextual and depend on how children migrate and with whom, or how they are affected by adult migration even if they remain in their communities of origin. Research from 2005 focusing on Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, for example, found that children ‘left behind’ whose parents migrated without them had improved material conditions. These are likely attributable to parents sending income home, which positively affected children’s health and education.  


However, this improvement is not necessarily a given, and the outcomes of children migrating with their parents or instead remaining behind with family is an important area of ongoing research. The same 2005 study noted mixed evidence on the emotional and psychosocial impacts of children separated by parents when they migrate. While some findings and an expert informant cited in the study described cases of child-parent estrangement occurring due to migration, the paper highlights other research that finds little or no evidence that children of migrants experienced more significant psychological problems than their non-migrant peers. Indeed, the paper discusses the importance of strong social connections as a mitigating factor in psychological distress, noting that:  

Virtually all research on migration in the Philippines emphasizes that children and their parents do not have to cope with the effects of migration on their own. Just as the extended family plays a major role in the decision to migrate, in the preparations for migration, and in the spending of remittance money, it also helps fill the gap left by the absent parent. 

Yet migration may not confer positive benefits on all migrant families and children. As evidence of the contextual nature of child wellbeing outcomes, research from Bangladesh and Vietnam on education, urban poverty, and migration conducted in 2012 found that: 

[R]ural-urban migrant households have fewer assets, live in worse housing conditions and in areas less well served by public schools, have fewer social connections in the area where they live, and contain adults with lower educational levels than for urban native households. Even conditional on these household characteristics, educational expenditure and grade attainment were both lower for children from migrant households than urban natives.  

Likely also negatively affecting children’s wellbeing was the finding that migrant households were generally unable to access assistance programmes such as school fee waivers due to their migration status.,  This evidence illustrates the roles that policies and rights play in supporting or reducing opportunities and assistance for migrant children. 

Other Innocenti research points towards a strong linkage between students’ immigration background and family socioeconomic status in industrialised countries such as in Europe and North America. A 2016 working paper evaluated students’ educational achievements across 39 industrialized nations from 2000-2012. This research found that family socio-economic status is a key predictor of low achievement across different educational systems and across time, with students' immigration background strongly interlinked with family socio-economic status. However, immigration status is found to affect low achievement independently. The study identified that “‘language disadvantage’ is one of the possible channels through which immigration can increase risks of low achievement.” However, it is also important to note that many studies using census data in industrialised (and other) countries do not account for irregular migrants who may remain undocumented, and thus such research may lack comprehensive findings across migration statuses. This represents both a key methodological limitation as well as an opportunity for more targeted research on child migrant wellbeing and outcomes.  


Mobility must be understood through a child- and family-focused lens  

There is a longstanding gap in child- and family-centric approaches to studying child migration and displacement, with much of the current literature viewing children in silos without considering the many family and other systems to which they belong. However, our work on children migrating both alone and with their families illustrates the importance of understanding mobility through the behaviours, decisions, challenges, and opportunities facing the entire family unit within which a child is situated.  

One key finding from Innocenti’s 2005 working paper highlighted the role of the extended family in minimising the social costs of parent-child separation. This also points to the potentially under-acknowledged role that the extended family plays in labour migration itself. The paper – focusing on Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines – examines how labour migration separates families, leaves children behind, or encourages children to move. The findings demonstrate how government migration policies ‘strongly influence family migration strategies and the ability of parents to maintain contact with their children,’ and how children’s labour migration options are the result of a collective, and at times contested, family decision-making process that must be understood holistically.  

Building on the need to understand child migration through a family-centred lens, Innocenti’s 2009 discussion paper on comparative child labour migration trends in Argentina, Chile, and South Africa found much higher numbers of child migrants living separately from their parents in comparison to non-migrant families. In considering these findings, the paper’s authors challenge the literature’s common portrayal of children migrating solely as ‘a residual of adult labour decisions. Instead, they emphasises the importance of further researching South-South and internal migration when exploring rates of child labour migration, stating that,  

[S]ince migrant children generally do not work in the North, the debate [on independent child migration] fails to recognise the relationship between migration and children’s paid and unpaid work, and this applies to whether children migrate independently, with families or are left behind… the timing and organisation of migration by children and adults may depend on children’s labour potential and intra-family relationships. 

Other Innocenti work on unaccompanied migrant minors also considers the relevance of the family and individual characteristics of these children, the decision-makers, and the decision-making processes in these children’s migration, and, crucially why migration in fact occurs. Captured in an extensive 2009 study exploring linkages between unaccompanied child migration and development, the research finds that, “children’s agency and purposes as migrants can make sense within the constrained options of some realities in developing countries, and potentially has positive and negative development implications for the children themselves, the places they leave behind and their places of destinations.” It places an emphasis not only on understanding wider contexts but also family livelihoods strategies and children’s positioning within households. Such studies reaffirm the value of both a child- and family-focused approach to understanding child migration. 

More recently, a 2018 Innocenti study examined the extent to which Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) respected the rights of asylum-seeking children. Drawing on legal analysis and qualitative data collection, the study found that while these countries attempted child-centric actions, they generally do not fulfil the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s recommendation to treat all asylum-seeking children as children first and foremost and to act with the ‘best interests of the child’ in mind. These and other findings illustrate that, even in well-resourced host countries, much work remains to be done to not only view migration, displacement, and asylum through a child-centred lens but to act on existing child-centred commitments, recommendations, and legislation. 


Children’s voices challenge our assumptions about migration and displacement   

Innocenti’s work on unaccompanied child migrants has focused on the very real challenges these children face in terms of protection from violence, harm and exploitation, and lack of access to education and social protection services. Through direct interviews with children and young people themselves, this work has also captured the many ways in which unaccompanied minors express agency in their aspirations, adaptations to these challenges, and resilience in seeking and finding opportunities. The 2009 study exploring linkages between unaccompanied child migration and development, states, for example:  

By giving voice to children and their families, research reported in this paper reveals degrees of some children’s agency, independent motives and organisation of movements. For many children, their movement is not under duress, deception or force, at least not any more than adults from similar places of low development...Abstract ideas about children’s agency need better-grounded empirical bases. 

Such conclusions highlight the need to conduct qualitative research, implement participatory research, and advocate for the inclusion of children’s voices in multiple areas of practice.   

This message has been a long-standing theme in Innocenti’s work. A 2008 report on child trafficking in South Asia, emphasised that ‘[c]hildren are seldom heard in legal and administrative procedures regarding their own cases, and the best interests of the child are not always considered in those procedures.’ Qualitative findings, gathered from detailed interviews with children themselves, ‘enhanc[ed] understanding of the local situation, risk factors and children’s views of services and options.’   

In recent years Innocenti has expanded its research engagement with migrant children’s voices. In particular, the Reimagining Migration Responses research featured surveys and interviews with a total of 1,290 migrant children and adolescents in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, to better understand how children perceived their safety, wellbeing, and protective environments. The research studied their level of trust in authorities and service providers, and the extent to which they accessed services and resources.  

A key finding emerging from this work was the high level of agency within both children and adolescent’s migration journeys as well as in the crafting of their own migration narrative. In this study, agency was discussed as children and young people’s personal capacity, or self-belief in their capacity, to act and to make free choices or to have control over their actions. In particular, the findings highlight that many children and young people believe they have a choice in their migration decisions. This, however, does not mean they do not face risks or harm. 

“I am planning to try to emigrate again, as I don’t have opportunities here. I know that it is dangerous, and I am scared, but I don’t have anything here and no reason to stay.” – Interview with female returnee, aged 15, Hargeisa, Somaliland, April 2019  

This research within and across the Horn of Africa also identified that children’s perceptions of a lack of safety were linked to having few trusted reliable authorities to turn to when in need. This in part could be traced to the fact that many authorities either enforce or are perceived as enforcing anti-migrant policies. Instead, migrant children placed more trust in ‘alternative’ service providers, such as faith-based and local community-based organizations, than in government officials. Findings such as these illustrate the much-needed contribution that children’s voices can bring to migration policy and practice, as well as to our overall understanding of migration decision-making processes.  

While much of the literature on child migrants and refugees is about these children, still far too little of it places their voices, capacities, and  needs, at the centre of research. Participatory research and the inclusion of children’s voices in research on displacement and migration is growing but remains an under-utilised practice. Innocenti will continue to champion a participatory research approach that highlights children’s voices through qualitative methods and evidence generation, to both broaden its existing methodological base and seek to address gaps identified in past research. 


A long-standing focus on gender and intersectionality   

Various aspects of intersectionality, including gender and migration status, have long been central topics within the Innocenti evidence base on migration and displacement. One of the first Innocenti research projects on migration and displacement in 1992, for instance, focused on young women moving from the Philippines to Western countries as domestic workers or nurses. These women joined with other ‘poor female-headed households’ already settled within North American and European host communities. Their children, in turn, faced additional multiple burdens tied to limited income generation and educational access. A more recent academic article explored the notion of ‘gender justice’ in the contexts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, illustrating how girls’ and women’s vulnerabilities in the region are exacerbated by both persistent cultural norms and through humanitarian interventions themselves. 

In a 2020 consultation brief on the linkages between migration and the sale and sexual exploitation of children, intersectionality and compounding vulnerabilities are discussed as key considerations in understanding how children are affected by migration and sexual exploitation. The brief explains, 

Age, gender, sexual identity and disability are all intersecting factors that determine a child’s experience and vulnerability to sale and sexual exploitation…For instance, girls’ journeys are affected by structural factors including patriarchal values and gender norms that tend to favour boys and men. Moreover, when children are forcibly displaced or decide to migrate, the overarching social and normative structures as well as connection to family and community are disrupted, potentially enhancing their vulnerability and risk of being subjected to sale and sexual exploitation. 

These and other considerations remain key when examining the gendered experiences of child migrants and refugees, and the risks and opportunities that may come with migration. Alongside this, there remains a strong need for research and evidence on the intersectionality of gender and other identities. Equally as important is the need for robust conceptual frameworks that explore different aspects of gender and how it plays out at different stages of children and young people’s migration journeys. These are some of the key areas that Innocenti is currently expanding on in its growing portfolio, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, building on its past work in the region. 


Areas of Future Research    

Innocenti will build on past decades of research to centre our work on three main research questions:  


  1. What does well-managed, safe, regular, and inclusive child migration look like in practice? 
  • What works in responding to migration challenges for children, what doesn’t, where and why? How can we improve the impact of UNICEF and the wider aid sector’s work in protecting the rights and well-being of children engaged in migration (including access to services and portability of entitlements) and helping them to thrive? How do intergenerational and life course dimensions across the migration and displacement journey manifest in different migrant and displaced populations and geographic regions? 

      2. How do we systematically conceptualize the interlinkages between childhood and migration?

  • How are displaced children affected by systemic issues such as xenophobia and discrimination in terms of both practical barriers and mental health impacts? How do different factors including gender, age, disability, parental status, sexuality and stages of life course development shape children and young people’s experiences of mobility? How do the diverse ways children and young people experience mobility impact the development of their identity? How do these experiences change at different stages of the migration journey (pre-migration, in transit, post/onward migration), and in different forms of migration (regular/irregular, refugee/IDP, etc)?  

      3. How can we future-proof the protection, rights, and potential of child and youth migrants for the next 30 years? 

  • While humanitarian innovation has become a growing trend over the last decade, it has rarely been linked to children and families, or to displaced children and migrants in particular. What scalable and generalisable innovations in migration management can be identified through the lens of children and families – and the grassroot and bottom-up adaptations that may define their own solutions? In turn, how can we gain a better understanding of child refugees’ and migrants’ resilience and derive good innovation practices based on what works for children themselves? This research strand links to several Innocenti past and recent projects, including a newer focus on the promises and pitfalls of digital learning for refugee children, in part through the co-creation of a digital language course in Greece


Next Steps 

Building on past work and as part of these key research domains, Innocenti will continue to produce research that uses a child- and family-focused lens to provide critical and holistic insights into the experiences and impacts of migration for children and their families.  

Recent and forthcoming publications from Innocenti are building key insights around several relevant areas of inquiry, including: 

  • Barriers to inclusion facing children and youth engaged in migration and displacement journeys, including the challenges of stigma and xenophobia; 
  • Access to services and systems, such as child protection, education,and health services; and institutional, normative,and capacity barriers to inclusive service delivery.  
  • Understanding the challenges of migration and displacement in contexts of humanitarian crisis and fragility, such as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine, and throughout Central and Latin America. 


These topics are explored through Innocenti’s large-scale studies of child migration in the Horn of Africa, and forthcoming studies on topics ranging from the return and reintegration of child migration in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the inclusion of refugee learners in national education systems; alternative models for conceptualizing child refugee mental health and resilience, and a systematic review of evidence on preventative healthcare access for children in displacement contexts.  

Some further areas where a child- and family-focused lens could shed important light on underexplored outcomes and experiences are in refugee livelihoods and self-reliance, the work of grassroots refugee-led organisations, and broader patterns of circular migration and displacement. An emerging Innocenti research area in this regard is the well-being of children migrating or displaced due to extreme climate events and other impacts of climate change. 

As this research agenda continues, Innocenti seeks to show the reality of children’s migration, drawing attention to complex realities and the ongoing need to view child migration and displacement within larger systems and spheres. We will study the themes and areas of enquiry captured above through a variety of rigorous cross-cutting approaches. These include participatory, mixed-methods and interdisciplinary research, with a focus on ethics and the inclusion of children. Through viewing migration holistically as a long-term process that may last years or in fact be cyclical, our research can challenge abstracted legal categories and frameworks of migration status that rarely match the nuanced and multi-faceted realities that children experience in their migration journeys. In doing so, Innocenti will build, with the support of key partners, on a long and rich history of research on migration and displacement in areas and geographies that remain highly relevant today.