Migrant, refugee and internally displaced children at the centre of COVID-19 response and recovery

Support to migrant and displaced families

Nicola Brandt
migrant in Thailand
01 May 2020

COVID-19 has left millions of children and their families exposed to greater threats and made them even more vulnerable.

In this current situation, many migrant workers have lost their jobs and have been forced to travel home or remain in precarious living conditions, both having a significant impact on children – whether they are living with their migrant parents or remaining in their country of origin. Containment measures are leading to the closure of services, hitting children affected by migration the hardest, given their already limited access to child protection support, exposing them to greater violence in the home. In the region also arrests of undocumented migrants – including people in situations of enhanced vulnerability, such as families with very young children - have taken place as part of containment measures. This not only contravenes the best interests of the child, but the fear of arrest and detention may push these vulnerable groups further into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment, with negative consequences for their own health and that of others.   

School closures further aggravate vulnerabilities for migrant, refugee and internally displaced children. Schools provide a haven for the most vulnerable and are an important platform to provide information. This safety mechanism is now lost, and worryingly some children may never return to school as their parents face increased economic uncertainty.

Misinformation on the spread of COVID-19 further exacerbates the xenophobia and discrimination that children and families from this group already face, making them subject to increased threats of violence, including upon return to their home countries.

Support to migrant and displaced families  

UNICEF has kept migrant, refugee and internally displaced children at the forefront, ensuring that it reaches some of society’s most vulnerable and neglected with health, safety, and protection measures.

migrant in Malaysia

UNICEF, and partners have supported governments to expand the availability and access to water sanitation and hygiene services in places where migrant and displaced children live and at other critical locations.

In Cambodia, UNICEF has distributed water filters and hygiene products to migrant centres. In Lao PDR, UNICEF provided its expertise and chlorine supplies to local health departments to benefit migrants in quarantine camps and associated health facilities. UNICEF Thailand, through partners, is conducting targeted community outreach to migrant communities in 20 provinces with key messages on the prevention of COVID-19.  In Myanmar, UNICEF is providing support to migrants returning from Thailand and China. In partnership with Government, UNICEF is supporting construction of hand-washing stations and provision of psychosocial support and case management services to children and families in community-based quarantine centres.

UNICEF in the region is taking measures to ensure that child protection services continue for migrant and displaced children. UNICEF Malaysia is, for example, supporting social welfare professionals in providing caseload management during COVID-19, with an emphasis on children in alternative care arrangements, including children affected by migration.

UNICEF is furthermore taking steps to better understand the unique challenges that this vulnerable group of children are facing. In Viet Nam, UNICEF is conducting a rapid assessment on the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 on children and their families, including children of migrant workers. In Cambodia, UNICEF is collaborating on a UNFPA-led initiative looking at the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on returning migrants. UNICEF Myanmar is conducting similar assessments to determine the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on both migrants and host communities.

Putting migrant, refugee and internally displaced children at the forefront  

UNICEF calls on governments to address the specific needs and rights of migrant, refugee and internally displaced children as part of their response to and recovery from COVID-19.  Both the public health response and containment measures, including border closures and movement restrictions, must keep this group of children and their families at its centre. And regional policy coordination on this is crucial if health, safety and protection of all is to be ensured.

As highlighted in a recent statement by the United Nations Network on Migration, “COVID-19 does not discriminate, and nor should the response to it, if it is to succeed.”

By Nicola Brandt, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific