Helping migrant and displaced children thrive

Many migrants and displaced families face perilous, gender-specific challenges on their journeys.

Sweta Shah, Joan Lombardi, Nada Elattar, Katie Murphy
Ecuador. A migrant girl looks out of a window.
A migrant girl looks out of a window in Ecuador.
27 August 2021

Violence, conflict, natural disasters, poverty – the circumstances pushing millions of children across the globe to leave their homes are multitude. But the reality facing many of these young people and their families is similar: risks and opportunities defined not only by age, but by the sometimes very different experiences, motivations and risks of boys and girls.

Take the example of 18-year-old Yamileth, who traveled from Miranda, Venezuela, to the Colombian city of Cali. Like many women living in Venezuela, she faced a difficult choice: remain there with her family amid the protracted socio-economic and political situation, or embark on a potentially dangerous journey on foot across the border to Colombia to seek new opportunities for herself and her children.

“My father begged us to be careful on the road,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges faced by women and children on the move, with border closures and other measures complicating efforts by young people and their families to travel for the care and assistance they need. The result is that already challenging journeys are now even more treacherous, exposing migrants to riskier entry points, where they are likely to be subject to extortion demands by border gangs, violence and exploitation. The alarming increase in gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, illustrates how crisis can exacerbate unsafe conditions for girls.

A mother washes a baby with a napkin in an accommodation centre in Colombia.
Yamileth washes her son at an accommodation centre.

Yamileth and her family were able to find help on their journey at a UNICEF-supported centre on the outskirts of Cúcuta. The centre provides hygiene kits for children, adolescents and their families, psychosocial support and promotes child protection, breastfeeding, sanitation and hygiene. But for many of the tens of millions other children and their families around the world who have been displaced – including nearly 33 million children that had been forcibly displaced by the end of 2020 – the outcomes aren’t so welcome. That’s particularly the case for those fleeing conflict affected areas.

According to the 2021 Lancet Series, for example, women of reproductive age living near severe conflict are three times more likely to lose their lives than women in peaceful settings, with infectious diseases, physical injury and poor sexual and reproductive health, among other factors, all playing a role. More generally, conflict can leave women and children facing malnutrition, infectious diseases, poor mental health, poor sexual and reproductive health, physical injury, and even death.

To survive and thrive, migrant and refugee children – like all children – require good health, adequate nutrition, responsive caregiving, security and safety and opportunities for early learning. Yet too often, humanitarian and refugee response plans are falling short in considering these basic needs, particularly around caregiving and early learning.

One of the challenges in ensuring that these needs are addressed is that much of the available evidence about young people’s journeys is incomplete. How many young people are leaving their homes? Why have they left? How will they get there? How long will they stay? What opportunities, challenges and deprivations will they face? To what extent will their sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as gender norms, influence these answers? While the available evidence leaves no doubt that gender must be considered when answering these questions, the data around their circumstances is often critically limited.

Still, while the information we have is often incomplete, there is much that we already know about what works, and what needs to be done to ensure displaced children and young people are on the right track to survive and thrive. Making that possible will require, among other things, a number of key actions from health and humanitarian donors, implementing agencies and other actors: 

  • Making gender a central part of humanitarian and displacement responses – ensuring the gender-specific needs of children and young people on the move are considered from the outset of an emergency and at every stage in their journey. As part of this, we should be delivering gender transformative programmes, ensuring children and young people in emergencies and on the move can actively challenge gender norms and inequities to reach their full potential.  
  • Closing the information gap by ensuring collected data captures the multitude of reasons children and young adults migrate and analysing how these reasons may differ by sex and age – including how experiences shift from early childhood through adolescence; investing in data systems to better measure the number of internally displaced children by sex and age; and supporting citizen-generated data to better understand gaps in service provisions for girls and boys on the move.
  • Assessing the needs of and increasing investments focussed on pregnant women and families with young children in every humanitarian and displacement situation, including developing a coordinated, holistic, and cross-sectoral plan of action to address these needs. This should include caregiver mental health, socio-emotional support, safety and security of the home environment, breastfeeding support, and economic support, especially during a child’s first 1,000 days.
  • Including critical maternal and newborn health actions in all phases of emergency response plans, as laid out in the Nurturing Care Framework.

Far more research is necessary to fully understand the journeys of migrants such as Yamileth and how gender-specific vulnerabilities, needs and opportunities shape the lives of girls and boys – and their families – on the move. But based on what we already know, it is essential that we focus on the earliest years of life to create a next generation where all children not only survive, but also thrive.

For more on this issue, read: Uncertain Pathways: How gender shapes the experiences of children on the move


Nada Elattar, Early Childhood Development (ECD) Specialist and Manager, UNICEF Uganda Country Office.
Joan Lombardi, ECD expert.
Katie Murphy, Senior Technical Advisory Early Childhood Development – International Rescue Committee (IRC) and acting Director of Education.
Sweta Shah, International ECD expert.


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