When children on the move are on their own

They are young, their homes and lives have been upended – and they number in the hundreds of thousands.

An estimated 300,000 children crossed borders as refugees and other migrants in 80 countries in 2015 and 2016. Increasingly, refugee minors and other migrants are choosing to use non-traditional methods for their journeys, often turning to smugglers. The risk-benefit calculation is attractive to them: by operating outside of legal migration systems, they avoid bureaucratic delays, and lessen the chance of authorities placing them in ‘protective custody’ or arresting them due to confusion over their age, an assessment that is part of the asylum application procedure.

During the first half of 2017, Mixed Migration Platform partner organisation INTERSOS collaborated with the Migration Policy Centre to study the challenges that unaccompanied and separated children on the move face daily in Jordan, Lebanon and Greece. Although each context is unique, the study found that these children face similar struggles in all three countries. The best interests of the child, as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, continue to be flouted in several ways:

  • Safeguards specifically tailored to protect children are not being implemented;
  • Asylum systems are overburdened to the point of not serving children;
  • Fear among governments and local populations of young, unaccompanied male and female migrants often leads to their criminalisation rather than their protection.

Gaps in protective legislation and policies at borders leave children, particularly those migrating on their own, at risk of serious human rights violations, including refoulement (the forcible return to a country where people might face persecution), sexual abuse, financial exploitation, and administrative detention. Once inside a country’s territory, unaccompanied and separated children are faced with additional threats to their wellbeing as they navigate complex legal systems that do not always look at their particular situations.

Photo: Timon KochThe report’s findings illustrate how several common factors compel unaccompanied children to move. First, whether escaping forced conscription and exploitation at home, or looking for work and educational opportunities to support their families, many children choose to go on risky journeys not knowing what may await them en route or upon arrival in another country. Secondly, the institutional capacity of countries that have received large numbers of refugees has buckled as a result of continuing instability in the Middle East and the accompanying large inflow of displaced persons. This institutional weakness is made worse by insufficient funding for protecting these children. Lastly, the ability to protect the rights and wellbeing of this vulnerable group shrinks further when these factors are coupled with poorly coordinated monitoring and an absence of specific data for unaccompanied and separated children, which would help monitor conditions of these young people.

The question of legal status is at the centre of the complex web of protection issues in which unaccompanied children find themselves entangled. The findings shed light on the fact that the freedom to legally live, work and travel remains largely unattainable for the majority of these children in Jordan, Lebanon and Greece. Despite their abilities and resilience, they are left with few options other than to live in dangerous locations at the mercy of exploitative landlords, to take dangerous and unregulated jobs with no employment protections, and to make use of back-door smuggling routes far removed from the eyes of authorities and organisations working to support them. Due to their uncertain status in-country, even those who do seek formal help are often regarded with suspicion rather than afforded their rights.

In Jordan, legal status complexities are characterised by the policy shift that occurred in 2014 mandating that refugees, including minors, who were registered by governments or the United Nations after this date, live in camps. This is despite the reality that at least 80% of this community live in host communities rather than camps so they can work and access community support. In Lebanon, the legally required presence of an adult guardian at all junctures (entry, residency, and documentation renewal) leaves unaccompanied and separated children with no legal pathway to residency. In Greece, medical inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the age assessment process continue to complicate children’s efforts to seek asylum and child-specific support.

Ambiguous legal status continues to place unaccompanied and separated children at risk of arrest, detention and, in the cases of Greece and Jordan, deportation or relocation within the country. This threat means these children rarely seek humanitarian support and do not register with national authorities – another factor that makes monitoring their movements even more difficult.

Minors’ mistrust of official channels also impacts their access to education, healthcare, psychological and social support, housing, and legal representation – exacerbating further their already acute vulnerability. Our findings illustrate how many of these children turn to harmful survival strategies, including child labour, transactional sex, working illegally, and taking on unsustainable levels of debt. All of this happens without children being given a voice and a chance to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

A child protection approach that continues to orient itself around the vulnerability of unaccompanied and separated children without recognising their ability to participate in decisions about themselves ultimately will fall short. Respecting these children and their rights, and giving them the means to express their needs and aspirations in a manner that will inform policy and humanitarian response, is key. As one Syrian child worker living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley said:

“I don’t want to be put in a shelter, I just want to be able to work freely without being stopped and detained by the government”.

(Photo above by Timon Koch)

Hannah Leach is an analyst with the Mixed Migration Platform (MMP) and the Italian nongovernmental organisation INTERSOS.