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Migration and children

Migration and Children

People crossing the Mekong river

Over the past few decades, migration - both international and internal - has increased dramatically. Easier travel, greater access to information about distant places, relatives and friends who have migrated and the opportunities for improving living standards all have fuel movements of individuals and families.

Whilst international migration to industrialized countries is important, evidence indicates that around 40 per cent of migrants leave a developing country to go to another developing country. Migration also occurs within countries; and contributes to urbanization and both formal and informal sectors. Additionally, significant numbers migrate from one rural area to another, sometimes across borders.

Migration presents both opportunities and challenges for societies, communities and individuals. Migration alters the structure of families. While it is true that economic factors are major drivers, migration involves highly diverse groups of people, including girls, boys, women, men, and better-off as well as poorer people.

Experience has shown that children are affected by migration in different ways: children are left behind by migrant parents; they are brought along with their migrating parents; and they migrate alone, independently of parents and adult guardians. Other children do not move, but are nevertheless affected because they live in communities that send or receive large numbers of migrants. Some children are return migrants or have been repatriated.

Children left behind may benefit from having migrant parents. Innocenti Social Monitor 2004 reported that remittances sent home by parents can increase consumption, finance schooling, buy health care and fund better housing. Whether children benefit depends on their access to those extra resources, which may depend partly on sex, age and the context of care when left behind. The involvement of substitute care or the lack of care causes difficulties for some children's emotional well-being and psychological development. Adults and children are affected by the loss of working-age community members in high out-migration communities (but others may come to replace them).

Children who migrate with their parents face different opportunities and challenges, as reported in Innocenti Working Paper 2005-05. Marginalization and discrimination in the country of settlement, barriers to accessing social services, challenges to the rights to citizenship and identity, parents' economic insecurity, and social and cultural dislocation may affect some children. None of these are necessary outcomes, however. Most migrant children flourish and contribute positively to their new communities; and policies and programmes can be devised to support and protect those children who may become vulnerable. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is the duty of any country to ensure that all children enjoy their rights, irrespective of their migration status or that of their parents.

The Innocenti Insight Children in Immigrant Families in Eight Affluent Countries finds that children of migrants in the 8 countries under the study are far from being a homogeneous population and they differ from each other in cultural, religious, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, yet, in some cases, their family composition is not far from that of other children of the country of settlement. However, the situations of the children and youth in immigrant families, particularly those who come from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), remain critical in several areas, including health, education, economic security, housing and work opportunities.

Children who migrate independently of their parents or adult guardians are in many ways similar to adult migrants in seeking new social and economic opportunities. These children, sometimes referred to as 'unaccompanied minors', may actively seek migration opportunities as a result of many factors. Yet many migrant children are not recognized as migrants because they are identified using other terms, such as domestic workers, street children or foster children. Many of these children send remittances to their families, combine work with schooling or training and manage to save, although there is little information to facilitate comparison of the benefits against the many costs and risks migrant children face. Independent migrant children are significantly affected by the absence of protection and support from their families, and by the challenges of their new situations after migration. Innocenti Working Papers and Innocenti Discussion Papers.

Directions for research:

Children are affected by migration in all regions of the globe, but he understanding of its effects is highly limited. Data collection, monitoring and research are needed to better understand how migration affects societies, families and children at countries of origin and settlement; to inform policies to mitigate adverse impacts, and to enable families and children to make informed decisions about movement.

UNICEF is working with partners at all levels - globally, regionally and at country level - to understand how children are affected by migration and to advocate for policies to mitigate its adverse impact on their well-being. The Innocenti Research Centre contributes to these efforts, particularly concerning children who move with their parents or who migrate independently of their parents.

Contact us on migration issues


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