UNICEF East Asia and Pacific launches flagship research on children affected by migration in ASEAN

The research aims to contribute to the protection of the rights of these children and their families

Jemma Maree Galvin
Ly Thi Kim Ngoc, 5, works with her grandmother and grandfather in a rice field near the family's house.
Five-year-old Ly Thi Kim Ngoc works alongside her grandparents in a rice field near their home in An Giang province, Viet Nam. Ly Thi Kim Ngoc’s parents migrated for work, leaving their daughter behind.
12 May 2023

Until recently, children were invisible in migration literature. Migration was viewed as an adult experience, with child migrants typically being seen only as an extension of their parents. As a result, little is known about the unique realities of migration for children, or about the impact of migration policies on them. As such, the Situation Analysis on Children Affected by Migration in ASEAN Member States aims to serve as a major contribution to this field of literature.

This publication places the child at the center, allowing us to better understand how children are affected by migration to inform migration policies and practices that are in the best interests of the child. Importantly, it supports the implementation of the landmark ASEAN Declaration on the Rights of Children in the Context of Migration and the subsequent Regional Plan of Action 2021-2030 that was developed to support its implementation.

While the Situation Analysis provides a comprehensive overview of the situation of children affected by migration in ASEAN, the strength of this package lies in the parts that make it up – namely, a series of country briefs, a legal review, five in-depth case studies and a business policy brief.  

Safe pathways to safer futures

Most children migrate within ASEAN irregularly (i.e. illegally), exposing them to protection risks that stem from being undocumented. International migration (across one or more international borders) across Southeast Asia has soared over the past 30 years. In 2020 alone, there were 1.27 million international child migrants in ASEAN. However, this data represents a small proportion of child migrants as most migrate irregularly either with their families or unaccompanied – and do not have a legal status in their destination country due to unauthorized entry, expiry of visa, overstay beyond lawful entry and/or unauthorized employment. In Thailand and Malaysia, for instance, as much as 50 per cent of migration is thought to be irregular, though this proportion is likely to be much higher among migrants who move from neighboring countries. Irregular child migrants are at heightened risk of protection concerns including trafficking, detention, labor and sexual exploitation as they tend to be engaged in informal work and have no documentation, and thus have limited recourse in cases of violence, abuse or exploitation. The Situation Analysis and its Legal Review illustrate that safe and legal migration pathways for children and cross-border child protection cooperation must happen urgently, to mitigate risks and ensure access to essential services, such as healthcare and education.

“Last October I met with two kids who were aged 5 and 9 years old when they were detained. They were detained in Tawau for 1.5 years. Their father and uncle died in detention beside them in March 2021, so for six months they were without a guardian in a detention centre together with adults.” – NGO Representative in Malaysia

A construction worker based in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, takes his daughter to the kindergarten provided in the company compound, which helps employees to work with peace of mind.
A construction worker based in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, takes his daughter to the kindergarten provided in the company compound, which helps employees to work with peace of mind.

Looking inward

Internal migrant children (those who move within their home country) appear to outnumber international child migrants in ASEAN, though nationally representative data on internal migration are difficult to access. Children and their families typically follow rural to urban routes, driven by improved economic opportunities. In Viet Nam and Myanmar, a substantial proportion of internal migrants are reported to be adolescents. Internal migration also includes important internal displacements due to conflict, persecution and natural disasters, which often leave children in protracted situations where access to child protection systems is lacking and discrimination rampant. Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines are striking examples. The Situation Analysis and its Country Briefs highlight the need to improve capacities for the effective protection of and assistance to children affected by migration – including internal migrant children who often remain overlooked without international scrutiny.

Widening the lens

This research also adds more nuance and a regional perspective to an often-forgotten segment of children: those who remain behind when one or both parents migrate for work. Parent migration can lead to remittances for families, which can improve children’s lives. However, children remaining behind may not be in a secure and stable family setting during parental absence and may be exposed to protection risks and poor social and emotional outcomes. Attention from the social service workforce prior, during and after parents’ migration is key. This situation is explored in detail in one of the case studies, focused on children remaining behind in Cambodia’s Battambang province.

“At first, we brought our children with us. They were there for about a week but the [company] did not allow us to keep children there because the workplace was dangerous for children. So, we brought our children back here to keep them with my mother.” – Cambodian migrant parent

Making migration everyone’s business

The report also takes a business lens in the Business Policy Brief, exploring the role of businesses in driving child migration, contributing directly and indirectly to protection risks experienced by children affected by migration. Given uneven economic development is one of the largest structural drivers of migration, it is crucial to understand the role the business sector plays so that States can protect, and businesses can respect, the right to protection of children affected by migration in ASEAN Member States. The Business Policy Brief will be launched in line with the 2023 United Nations Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum, taking place in Bangkok from 6-9 June.

The Situation Analysis research was carried out under a programme to protect children affected by migration co-funded by UNICEF and the European Union. To download and read the full report, country briefs, legal review, case studies and business policy brief, please visit this page. 

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