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 upon which Innocenti’s current evidence strategy on child refugees and migrants is being built, blending past learning with research on pressing current and anticipated future needs and trends.
Today over 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 growing 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, including for the estimated 31.7 million migrant children, who often lack similar safeguards and access to services to those who are displaced. There is a pressing need for data and evidence to guide effective aid responses; identify good practices for guaranteeing the rights of children, and to ensure the protection and well-being of children who migrate or are displaced. Children’s lived realities also need to be better understood.
Since 1992, UNICEF Innocenti 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 legal and other statuses that intersect with migration and displacement, including refugee, internally displaced, irregular and ‘voluntary’ migration statuses. Innocenti’s studies of and with 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 the ways in which 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 - depending 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’ (i.e. whose parents migrated without them) had improved material conditions. These improvements are likely attributable to parents sending income home, which positively affected both children’s health and their education.
However, positive impacts are not necessarily a given. The same 2005 study noted mixed evidence on the emotional and psychosocial impacts of children separated from their parents when the latter 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. (p7)
Migration may also 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. (p4)
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. 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 interlinkage 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.
2. 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 emphasise the importance of further researching South-South and internal migration when exploring rates of child labour migration:
[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. (p15)
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. A 2009 study exploring linkages between independent child migration and broader development reports 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.” (p69) 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 to undertake child-centric actions in receiving children seeking asylum, these actions did not always 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.
3. 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. As the 2009 study on independent child migration mentioned above notes:
‘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.’ (p69)
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 – defined as the personal capacity, or self-belief in the capacity to act and make free choices or to have control over their actions – that children and adolescents report exercising within their migration journeys as well as in crafting of their migration narratives. In particular, the findings highlight that many children and young people believe that they have some 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.
4. The importance of a focus on gender dynamics and intersectionality
Various aspects of intersectionality, including gender identity and migration status, have long been central topics within the Innocenti evidence base on migration and displacement. For instance, one of the first Innocenti research projects on migration and displacement (conducted in 1992), 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. (p3)
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 important is the need for robust conceptual frameworks that explore different aspects of gender and how it plays out at different stages of children’s 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.
As part of these key research areas, Innocenti is committed to producing research that uses a child- and family-focused lens to offer critical and holistic insights into the experiences and impacts of migration for children and their families.
Recent and forthcoming publications from UNICEF Innocenti are building key insights around several key areas, 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 worldwide, and a systematic review of global evidence on preventative healthcare access for children in displacement contexts.
Other areas where a child- and family-focused lens could shed important light on the outcomes and experiences of these two groups, include: 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.
Innocenti will also continue to leverage its unique role as a connector of knowledge partners from across academia, practice, government, civil society, private sector and – critically – members of migrant and displaced communities themselves, by continuing our long tradition of bringing together colleagues through convening. To this end, we will continue to offer a wide diversity of fora to collaboratively co-develop and share evidence, and work together on ensuring children and young people are central to wider migration and displacement agendas across our respective sectors.
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 thematic and geographic areas that remain highly relevant today.
Further information on UNICEF Innocenti’s work on migration, here.