Refugee and migrant children in Europe

One third of the refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe are children. UNICEF is responding to the needs of all uprooted children at every stage of their journey, urging governments to protect their rights.

 A young girl stands outside her family tent in Nizip 1 refugee camp, Gaziantep, southern Turkey.

The challenge

Refugee and migrant children – some travelling with their families, some alone – risk everything, even their own lives, in search of a better life. Millions of uprooted families flee their homes to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. 

When children and young people feel that they have no choices, no sense of a future, and where there are no safe and legal alternatives for migration available to them, uprooted children will take matters into their own hands, facing even greater risks of exploitation at the hands of people smugglers and traffickers. 

"There are far more reasons that push children to leave their homes and fewer pull factors that lure them to Europe. But for those who do aim to come to Europe, the allure is the chance to further their education, find respect for their rights and get ahead in life. Once they reach Europe, their expectations are sadly shattered."

- Afshan Khan, Regional Director for UNICEF in Europe and Central Asia. 

All children on the move are vulnerable to abuse and other grave forms of violence during and after their journeys. It is estimated that more than one child dies every day along the perilous Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy. Of the almost 100,000 refugees and migrants travelling via this route in the past year, around 15 percent are children.

The vast majority are boys aged 16 to 17 travelling alone from numerous countries in West Africa and the Horn of Africa. For many, Europe may not be their intended destination when they set out on their journey: most head for neighbouring countries at first, but the abuse they experience along the way compels them to push on towards Europe.

Ablie, 17, Fodaoi, 14, and Alieu, 17, all from Gambia, pass time at a government Hot Spot – a reception centre that doubles as a lodging station for unaccompanied minors in Pozzallo, Sicily
UNICEF/UN020016/Gilbertson VII Photo

"We knew it was dangerous, I knew it was dangerous, but when you have a lion at your back and the sea in front, you take the sea."

A teenager from the Gambia interviewed in Italy. 

Uprooted children travelling from the Middle East to Greece via the eastern Mediterranean tend to arrive with their families, with girls just as likely to arrive as boys. They come primarily from just three countries: Syria (54 percent), Iraq (27 percent) and Afghanistan (13 percent).  

Many people have fled from the brutal six year conflict in Syria and more than three million Syrians now live in Turkey – the largest refugee population in the world. Almost half of these are children. The majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey live in host communities that are often poverty-stricken, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children are out of school.  

"We're now refugees. People don't like us. No one is loyal, everyone lies. I was a kid before. I am older now. I know more."

- Rawan, aged 12, who had to flee from Aleppo in Syria. 

Intended to halt mass flows of migrants into western Europe, the Balkan border closures and the EU-Turkey statement have also resulted in more people taking greater risks to get to their destinations – and often facing exploitation at the hands of smugglers.  

There are now more than 72,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, Cyprus and the Balkans, including more than 22,500 children  – unable to move forward, unwilling to go back to their home countries and struggling to fit into their host communities. Children are increasingly showing signs of deep psychological trauma as a result of the suffering they have experienced during and after their journeys.

The solution

A roadmap for care and protection

UNICEF has worked with its partners to develop a Roadmap that provides guidelines to improve the care and protection of refugee and migrant children, whether they are travelling alone or with their parents or caregivers. 

The Roadmap highlights the need to identify children, register them through child-friendly procedures, and build a relationship of trust with them as early as possible. 

Ensuring that a well-trained guardian takes immediate responsibility for the child, engaging cultural mediators, and mobilizing members of host communities are critical measures that can help build a trusting relationship and protect children from smugglers, traffickers or the impact of severe pressures on a family. 

At national level, we work with partners to meet children’s immediate needs, including safety, protection, health care, adequate nutrition and education
The ‘Blue Dot’ centres, for example, offer psychosocial support and other child protection services – including specific services targeting unaccompanied children and those most seriously distressed by their experiences. 

We support the long-term integration of refugee and migrant children into the communities where they now live. In Greece, for example, UNICEF reinforces national efforts to protect more than 20,000 vulnerable refugee and migrant children.  

We help to provide psychosocial services and education for refugee and migrant children

Here and in the other countries with refugee and migrant populations, we help to provide psychosocial services and education for refugee and migrant children while strengthening national child protection systems to benefit all children who are vulnerable.  

In Turkey, we have prioritized the integration of refugee and migrant children into mainstream schools, and in 2016, for the first time since the crisis began, there were more Syrian refugee children in school in Turkey than out of school. Building on this, we have launched cash benefits for more than 230,000 Syrian and other refugee children in Turkey, linked to their school enrolment and attendance.  

Yahya, aged 17, from Burkina Faso, poses in front of his painting.
Yahya, aged 17, from Burkina Faso, poses in front of his painting.

Tackling the root causes

People have always migrated to flee from trouble or to find better opportunities. Today, more people are on the move than ever, trying to escape from climate change, poverty and conflict, and aided as never before by digital technologies.

Children make up one-third of the world’s population, but almost half of the world’s refugees: nearly 50 million children have migrated or been displaced across borders.  

We work to prevent the causes that uproot children from their homes

While working to safeguard refugee and migrant children in Europe, UNICEF is also working on the ground in their countries of origin to ease the impact of the poverty, lack of education, conflict and insecurity that fuel global refugee and migrant movements.

In every country, from Morocco to Afghanistan, and from Nigeria to Iraq, we strive to ensure all children are safe, healthy, educated and protected. 

This work accelerates and expands when countries descend into crisis. In Syria, for example, UNICEF has been working to ease the impact of the country’s conflict on children since it began in 2011.

We are committed to delivering essential services for Syrian families and to prevent Syria's children from becoming a ‘lost generation’. We support life-saving areas of health, nutrition, immunization, water and sanitation, as well as education and child protection. We also work in neighbouring countries to support Syrian refugee families and the host communities in which they have settled. 


These resources on emergencies represent just a small selection of materials produced by UNICEF and its partners in the region. The list is regularly updated to include the latest information. 

The Palermo Model of Volunteer Guardianship Brief (2019) - UNICEF

Boys on the Move Brochure (2019) - UNFPA EECARO & UNICEF

Boys on the Move for Older Boys and Young Men, Facilitator Book, second edition (2019) - UNFPA EECARO & UNICEF

Boys on the Move for Older Boys and Young Men, Participant Book, second edition (2019) - UNFPA EECARO & UNICEF

Boys on the Move, Facilitator Book - Italian (2019) - UNFPA EECARO & UNICEF

Boys on the Move, Participant Book - Italian (2019) - - UNFPA EECARO & UNICEF

Situation reports

Access to education for refugee and migrant children in Europe (2019) - UNICEF, UNHCR and IOM

Advocacy brief: Ending childhood statelessness in Europe (2019) - UNICEF and UNHCR

Building on promising practices to protect children affected by migration across the European Union - UNICEF

Children on the move in Italy and Greece (2017) - UNICEF and REACH

Harrowing journeys: Children and youth on the move across the Mediterranean Sea, at risk of trafficking and exploitation (2017) - UNICEF and IOM

Beyond borders: How to make the global compacts on migration and refugees work for uprooted children (2017) - UNICEF

A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migration Route (2017) - UNICEF

Protected on Paper? An analysis of Nordic country responses to asylum-seeking children (2018) - UNICEF

Uprooted: The growing crisis for refugee and migrant children (2016) - UNICEF