Children on the Move

“No Mother Wants Her Child to Migrate”

Vulnerability of Children on the Move in the Horn of Africa

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Children in Laos taking part in the ChildFund Pass It Back program.


Children are moving on an enormous scale in the Horn of Africa. The report highlights how children’s movement is driven by different motivations, exposes children to different forms of harm, and presents multiple barriers to accessing services. As elsewhere in the world, many people in the Horn of Africa are forced or pushed to move by unaddressed vulnerabilities, including poverty, persecution, disruption of their families or exposure to human rights abuses. Once they move, vulnerabilities can be exacerbated by the disruption of social structures and coping mechanisms that would otherwise have a protective effect. Being on the move can disrupt access to services as individuals may be unaware of where to turn in a new location and service providers may, in turn, have difficulty accessing them. These dangers become acute for children, especially those travelling without families.

This report is the first in a series of studies in the Horn of Africa aimed at building knowledge to improve Unicef’s programmes which support children on the move. This first qualitative study provides a better understanding of the experiences of these children. It draws on 282 individual interviews and focus group discussions with children and parents on the move, including internally displaced persons, refugees, migrants and returnees. Within each group, the researchers examined why children move and the problems they face when they do. The researchers also examined what structures exist to protect children and whether they are effectively reaching children on the move and responding to the threats these children face. The report also provides recommendations for strengthening child protection systems on the ground.


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


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The report from the Horn of Africa draws on 282 qualitative interviews and focus group discussions with children and parents on the move, including internally displaced persons, refugees, migrants and returnees. Within each group, the research examined why children move and what problems they face when they do so and how to respond.

The research began with a literature review and analysis of existing data regarding the situation of children on the move and their protection concerns in Somaliland. UNICEF then partnered with the University of Hargeysa to gain insights from children, social workers, community members and other stakeholders who are engaged in providing services to children along migratory routes in Somaliland.

A child protection protocol was developed in line with UNICEF ethical standards, including strong provisions relating to gaining consent and the development of a resource base, which allowed data collectors to make referrals in the field if needed.

Interview maps were designed with the intention of guiding open-ended conversations, allowing interviewees to express themselves freely and tell their stories as they pertained to the research questions.
A five-day pilot was conducted in Hargeysa, allowing the teams to test the interview maps and identify
common misunderstandings. Following the pilot phase, strengths and weaknesses of the map were
reviewed and revisions were made. This was followed by ten days of field research conducted in six
research sites across Somaliland. These six sites were selected, in part, because of their strategic location
on different migration routes.


Read more about the methodology in a new blog by the report author, Olivia Bueno: Partnering with Youth to Research the Challenges Facing Young People in the Horn of Africa



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In Somaliland, child migration is driven by unaddressed vulnerabilities, including poverty, persecution, disruption of families and/or exposure to human rights abuses, war, drought or other natural events, which force or push children and young people to move in or out of Somaliland. Lack of employment opportunities, lack of access to education, family dynamics and lack of protection also act as 'push factors' for children on the move in Somaliland. 


"The main reason that we moved from Cuna-qabad was a severe drought… since our main income source was destroyed and we didn’t have other sources to use for living, we decided to move to the urban area to survive."



The largest group of children on the move in Somaliland are internally displaced. Available estimates suggest that almost 50% of approximately 1 million displaced people are children, moving with their families or sent by their families to escape drought. Once absorbed in community networks these children are invisible and hosting families don’t receive support to cover education or other needs.



Global data indicate that thousands of children also come to Somaliland with their parents from Yemen and conflict affected regions of Somalia to escape war, or from Ethiopia to escape inter-ethnic conflict or persecution.



Tahriib is an Arabic word colloquially used in Somali language to define the pattern of young people leaving Somaliland to find a better life for themselves in Europe or Saudi Arabia – these children (usually aged between 18 and 21, but many under 18 and some as young as 10), leave for various reasons, unemployment, lack of educational opportunities and lack of respect in the community. This study indicates that children typically leave without the consent or knowledge of their parents.


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How do children move?

Children and young people undertaking their journey are generally facilitated by smugglers, who they identify through their network of friends who already undertook the same journey. Peers facilitated by technology and social networks, are the main source of information of children who attempt to leave.

Smugglers and traffickers typically operate on a ‘go now, pay later’ basis. During the journey young people are often denied basic provisions (such as food and water) and endure harsh conditions, travelling long distances on foot or in crowded cars or boats.



What do children experience on the move?

Abuse - All children on the move in Somaliland, regardless of which of the above categories they fall into, face significant difficulties. They 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.

Blackmail - If children make it far enough that they need to pay for their journey, they may be held to ransom, beaten or abused to compel their relatives to pay. Families are forced to sell assets and beg for money to raise the necessary funds, jeopardizing an already unstable economic situation of the households for many years to come, if not forever.   

Detention - If children leave without parental permission, they can be arrested by Somaliland authorities. Abroad, they may be arrested by immigration authorities. If the children reach their destination, they may face long immigration or asylum procedures, uncertainty and discrimination. Detention facilities in Somaliland are usually mixed with adults, exposing children to criminality.


What systems and legal frameworks are in place to protect children on the move?


Legal gaps - There are huge gaps in legal protection. With the exception of refugees, children on the move remain unsure of their status and vulnerable to arrest and deportation. Children are routinely sent home, irrespective of their protection needs, wishes to remain in Somaliland or to continue their journeys through the country.

Absence of rights-based Best Interests Assessment and Determination procedures - Children are excluded from decision-making processes about their welfare. Procedures lack formal determinations of the best interests and little scope for children’s participation.

Organised traffickers - Government is unable to allocate the resources to compete with well organized, well financed smuggling and trafficking operations. The government lacks capacity to conduct extensive surveillance against transnational organized networks who are managing cross border trafficking.

Lack of social services - There are only a dozen social workers to serve a population of millions. Civil society organizations try to fill the gaps, but their interventions are constrained by funding and other factors.

Data - There is a lack of real time and systematic data collection and sharing on children on the move. This hampers coordination and assistance programmes/services.

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Child protection services are failing to reach out to children on the move. More needs to be done to develop systems and services that are inclusive and responsive to the needs of children on the move. This includes:

  • Enact child protection, anti-trafficking and sexual offences legislation, unequivocally placing the age of majority at 18.
  • Enforcement and accountability mechanisms must be strengthened and sufficient capacity built to uphold children’s rights and ensure children are supported to achieve their full potential.
  • Children are children first, migrants second – a child’s migration status should have no bearing on their access to rights and services.
  • Investments in young people. Many children are making choices to migrate despite having knowledge of the immense risks they may face on the journey. Evidence suggests that young people lack opportunities, mistrust authorities, lack recognition and face immense risks. It is critical that emerging child protection systems take into account these factors and provide genuine opportunities for these children to create lives that are meaningful.


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via degli Alfani 58 Florence, Fi 50121 Italy
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The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues in order to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable.