Children uprooted in the Caribbean

UNICEF Child Alert | December 2019


Stronger hurricanes are devastating communities, uprooting lives and putting children and their families at risk.

The 29 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean are home to about 43 million people, including 12.6 million children. In recent years, these children and their families have become among the most vulnerable people in the world to the effects of drought, storms and flooding – events that are increasing in intensity and occurrence because of climate change and a warming planet.

Climate-related forced displacement places the lives, health, education and well-being of children at risk. This child alert takes stock of the link between a changing climate, extreme weather events and the forced displacement of children and families in the Caribbean SIDS.

Issue at a glance

A boy stands in front of the remains of some houses after Hurricane Irma hit the Dominican Republic in September 2017.
What’s happening?

In the past five years, the number of people internally displaced by storms and flooding increased six-fold in the Caribbean SIDS. From 2014 to 2018, 3.4 million people, including 761,000 children, were internally displaced. In contrast, more than 600,000 people, including 175,000 children, were displaced in the preceding five-year period from 2009 to 2013.

Why is this happening?

The primary cause of this dramatic increase in forced displacement was a series of catastrophic tropical cyclones or hurricanes that hit the region between 2016 and 2018 – including four Category 5 and two Category 4 storms.

How are children being affected by climate change?

Children are particularly vulnerable during population displacements, especially if their parents are killed or if they are separated from their families in the chaos of the event. Alone, children are exposed to a higher risk of violence, exploitation and trafficking. They are also more vulnerable to opportunistic diseases such as measles and respiratory infections, which can thrive in overcrowded conditions in emergency shelters. And they may end up in situations where they have limited or no access to the essential services they need to thrive, including education, protection and health care.

A child sits in her home in Dominica a week after her home was hit by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

Natural disasters also have devastating impacts on migrant children and families with an irregular migration status – those who often already live in the most vulnerable conditions. When disasters strike, these families may not seek the support they need because they fear deportation.

What is UNICEF doing?

UNICEF works with partners throughout the Caribbean to protect and support children, including supporting resilience planning and working to establish disaster-risk reduction strategies that limit forced displacement and shorten rehabilitation time – so families can return home.

  • In the wake of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti in October 2016, UNICEF worked with partners to rehabilitate health and education services.
  • In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Cuba and Haiti in September 2017, UNICEF and partners reached more than 400,000 people with access to drinking water and water purification tablets.
  • In Guyana and Suriname, UNICEF works in areas affected by climate change to provide support to local communities by increasing access to water sources and improving sanitation and hygiene.

Call to action: Climate change

The worst effects of climate change are not inevitable. But to reduce the impact on children of extreme weather events caused by climate change, UNICEF supports action in four key areas:

  • Putting children at the heart of climate change strategies and response plans. As the ones who are the least responsible for climate change but who will bear the greatest burden of its impact children should receive the strongest protections from its effects.
  • Recognizing children as agents of change. Children and young people have already taken the lead on advocating for better policies to mitigate climate change and its effects; it is time for us all to join them. To do this, we must listen to their perspectives on environmental issues and work with them to identify solutions.
  • Protecting children from the impact of climate change and environmental degradation. This includes financing and implementing adaptation and climate resilience measures for the services that children depend on most.
  • Reducing emissions and pollution. Ambitious commitments and actions from governments and businesses are essential to reduce global emissions and pollution to levels that avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Call to action: Children Uprooted

A girl studies with a tutor on the island of Antigua after she and her family were evacuated to Antigua from Barbuda following Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Around the world, millions of children and families flee their homes to escape the impact of climate change, disaster, conflict, persecution, and poverty. Many of these children face danger, detention, deprivation and discrimination. World leaders must stand up for them.

UNICEF calls for six actions to protect all refugee and migrant children:

  • Press for action on the causes that uproot children from their homes. Disasters, protracted conflicts, persistent violence, and extreme poverty and disadvantage drive millions of children from their homes. UNICEF calls for greater efforts to protect children from conflict and to address the root causes of violence and poverty.
  • Help uprooted children stay in school and stay healthy. UNICEF calls for increased collective efforts by governments, communities and the private sector to provide uprooted children with access to education, health services, shelter, nutrition, water and sanitation.
  • Keep families together and give children legal status. UNICEF calls for stronger policies to prevent the separation of children from their parents and other family members in transit and faster procedures to reunite children with their families, including in destination countries. All children need a legal identity and should be registered at birth.
  • End the detention of refugee and migrant children by creating practical alternatives. Unaccompanied and separated children should be placed in foster care, supervised independent living or other family- or community-based living arrangements. Children should not be detained in adult facilities.
  • Combat xenophobia and discrimination. UNICEF calls on local leaders, religious groups, non-governmental organizations, the media and the private sector to combat xenophobia and nurture a greater understanding among uprooted children, families and host communities.
  • Protect uprooted children from exploitation and violence. Cracking down on trafficking, strengthening child protection systems and expanding access to information and assistance can help keep children safe.