Child alert: Child migration in Latin America and the Caribbean
The region is home to one of the world’s largest and most complex child migration crises.
Millions of children and families across Latin America and the Caribbean are on the move, driven to leave their homes and communities by the conditions they face in their country of origin. Some embark upon their journey due to poverty or the collapse of essential services. For others, it’s the threat of armed violence or the devastating impact of extreme weather events. Whatever the reason, these journeys are frequently risky for children on the move.
Millions of migrants are unable to access regular and safe migration pathways because they don’t have official documentation, the means to pay the high cost of regular migration, or a sponsor in a destination country. This can result in perilous journeys across treacherous terrain riddled with traffickers and other criminals. Migrant families might also be apprehended in transit or upon reaching their destinations, only to be detained and then returned to their country of origin or last country of transit.
Refugee and migrant children in the region also face significant barriers accessing essential services, in both transit countries and their destinations. At the same time, many host communities are struggling to meet the service and protection needs of migrant and domestic populations alike, causing additional strain on resources and social cohesion.
This Child Alert examines the changing dynamics of child migration in Latin America and the Caribbean through the lens of three key migration flows – northern Central America and Mexico, Haiti and Venezuela.
Issue at a glance
How many children are on the move?
Children are migrating through Latin America and the Caribbean in record numbers and now account for a larger share of the migrant population than in any other region in the world. Globally, children make up around 13 per cent of the migrant population, but they account for 25 per cent of people on the move in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2022, around 250,000 migrants, including 40,0000 children, crossed the dangerous Darien jungle. In the first six months of 2023, more than 196,000 migrants had done so, including more than 40,000 children.
What’s behind the crisis?
The root causes of migration in the region are highly variable, from socioeconomic factors like widespread poverty, limited livelihood opportunities, structural inequality, food insecurity and barriers to essential services, to a desire among families to secure a more hopeful future for their children. People may also leave their countries to escape violence – domestic, gender-based, gang-related and political. Meanwhile, disasters caused by events like hurricanes and earthquakes have also caused significant internal displacement in the region. These factors are being amplified by climate change and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Migrant journeys are long and dangerous…
The physical risks along these irregular routes are innumerable, especially for migrant children. In 2022, at least 92 migrant children died or went missing while moving through the region, more than any other year since 2014. These risks are compounded by the almost-complete lack of access to essential services like health care, nutrition, safe water, sanitation and protection. While in transit, migrant children might also be forced into forms of child labour, leaving them at risk of exploitation and abuse.
The 100-kilometre trek through the Darien jungle, also known as the Darién Gap, is especially perilous, riddled with natural hazards to which young children are particularly vulnerable. Children are also at risk of diarrhoea, respiratory diseases, dehydration from the complete lack of drinking water, insect-borne diseases and attacks by wild animals.
…and marked by growing diversity
More and more children are on the move of an increasingly young age, often alone and from diverse countries of origin, including as far away as Africa and Asia. The major flows in child migration, and migration more broadly, are concentrated in the movement within and through northern Central America and Mexico, the movement of Haitians from Haiti and between other countries in the region, and the movement of migrants from Venezuela. But there are also smaller, yet significant, movements of people within the region, including those moving from Cuba and Nicaragua, those moving within and beyond the Andean countries of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, and the extracontinental flows of migrants arriving to the region from Africa and Asia.
Increasingly, it is younger children who are making these perilous journeys, with those under 11 years now accounting for up to 91 per cent of all children on the move at some key transit points. This new reality poses challenges to national migration policies and humanitarian responses in countries of origin, transit and destination.
With some groups particularly vulnerable
While all refugee and migrant children are likely to face limited access to services in transit or upon reaching their destinations, some groups are especially vulnerable, including children with disabilities, children identifying as LGBTQI+ and children from indigenous groups. Multiple studies have shown that indigenous children don’t have adequate access to protection services in transit and host countries alike, while others have shown that indigenous migrant and refugee children are at greater risk of sex trafficking.
How is UNICEF responding?
Regardless of the reasons for leaving their country of origin, or their migratory or legal status, children on the move and their families have rights, including protection and safe access to basic services. UNICEF is on the ground across Latin America and the Caribbean, working alongside governments and partners to provide life-saving assistance and support to migrant and displaced children.
In 2023, UNICEF will continue to provide children and families with access to basic services throughout their migration journey, as well as with integrated interventions to facilitate their access to education, health and protection services in host communities. This includes:
Working with partners to support governments and service providers expanding access for children to basic services, such as education and health care – especially for the most vulnerable.
Providing targeted support to help national and local child protection systems prevent, detect and safeguard children from violence, including working with municipal governments, faith-based organizations, communities and schools to reduce violence through the creation of safe spaces and alternative recreational, educational and vocational opportunities.
Working with partners to support policies and provide services to assist children and families in the region who face hardship, exploitation and, in some cases, mortal danger on the irregular migration journey, including working with shelters to provide tools and training on psychosocial ‘first aid’ for migrant children.
What is UNICEF calling for?
Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are simultaneously points of origin, transit, destination and return. This means that an all-of-region, integrated approach will be needed to protect all refugee and migrant children and to alleviate the root causes of irregular and forced migration.
UNICEF continues to urge UN Member States in the region to adopt the following actions to ensure the rights, safety and well-being of migrant and refugee children:
- Continue to mobilize a regional approach to international protection and to address the child-specific root causes of migration, to build on the interconnected nature of migration movements and policy responses in the region.
- Further invest in countries of origin to improve access to services, prevent and respond to violence, and create education and livelihood opportunities for vulnerable children, young people, and families, and support children who continue their residence in the country of origin while their parents have migrated.
- Continue to expand safe and regular migration pathways for children and families, including family reunification mechanisms, while upholding the right to territorial asylum.
- Ensure that screening processes in regional or border processing centres are carried out in coordination with service providers so that the needs of children and families are identified and that access to critical services, such as child protection services, is not overlooked.
- Strengthen child-sensitive border and reception processes that are led by child protection authorities at the earliest possible stage, implement child-specific safeguards, preserve family unity including for children travelling with their non-parental caregivers, and ensure access to legal services.
- Prioritize family- and community-based care and case management and non-custodial measures. Children should not be detained in adult facilities and cannot be separated from their families.
- Invest in strong national child protection systems to safeguard all children, including migrant and refugee children, from exploitation and violence, ensuring compliance with adequate procedures to determine their best interests, and promote safe border crossing.
- Ensure all children on the move have access to the necessary identity, citizenship and legal status documentation throughout the migration journey.
- Ensure children and families have comprehensive access to basic services such as education, social protection, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), health and nutrition in transit, once they are settled in host communities, and if returned.
The Latin America and the Caribbean region is home to one of the world’s largest and most complex child migration crises. ‘The Changing face of Child Migration in Latin America and the Caribbean: A region like no other’ examines the changing dynamics of child migration in the region through the lens of three key migration flows – northern Central America and Mexico, Haiti and Venezuela.