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Children on the move

The journey and its end

UNICEF Image: Portrait of a smiling boy, with a blurry barren landscape in the background
© UNICEF/UN015882/Bahaji
Ali Saleh, 12, is a returnee from Niger who now lives with his family in the Dar Naim site in Chad's Lake region, where he has access to education for the first time. Ali and his family fled their nomadic camp because of ongoing violence, and in the process lost all their camels.


Child Alert: Broken dreams

Every month, thousands of children from Central America risk being kidnapped, trafficked, raped or killed as they make their way to the United States to seek refuge from brutal gangs and stifling poverty. These vulnerable children, many of whom are travelling without an adult, need protection every step of the way -- in their home countries, which have some of the world's highest murder rates, as they cross Mexico, and when they arrive in the U.S.


Read the new report [PDF]

Child Alert: Danger every step of the way

Tens of thousands of children are making the dangerous refugee and migrant journey in the hope of finding safety or a better life in Europe. More than 9 out of 10 of the children coming through Italy this year are unaccompanied, which exposes them to a higher risk of abuse, exploitation and death. This UNICEF report documents the appalling risks adolescents take when they flee conflict, despair and poverty.


Read the report [PDF]



You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
—Warsan Shire

For the vast majority of forcibly displaced people, the journey is short – it’s not far to the nearest place of safety. In South Sudan, it could be a few kilometres to UN-protected internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, or just across the border into Ethiopia. It’s similar in Syria, where millions find themselves in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

But as the European crisis shows, the longer the conflict, the more displaced people consider a longer journey to safety and hope. Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis make up 78% of the people on the move to Europe.

For children on the move from poverty or climate change, the situation is more complicated, and the journeys generally longer. Little is known, as much of this migration is irregular. UNICEF’s research notes that we have very little evidence about the various forms of migration that children and young people undertake. We don’t know enough about why children and adolescents leave home, what their aims are, who assists or enables them along the way, or how they cope throughout their journeys.

The longer the journey and the more borders to be crossed, the more likely a refugee or migrant child will enter the world of smugglers and illegal migration. With millions affected, a multi-billion-dollar industry has emerged to service their needs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that two of the principal smuggling routes – leading from East, North and West Africa to Europe and from South America to North America – generate about $6.75 billion a year for criminals. The global figure is likely to be much higher.

Many irregular migrants finance their trips on a pay-as-you-go basis, often making long stops along the way to work and save money in order to continue the journey. As a result, journeys may take years, during which children run a high risk of being exploited, detained or exposed to other violations of their human rights.

The journey can be dangerous. Globally, more than 5,100 migrants and refugees died in 2015, and 40,000 since 2000. The Mediterranean Sea route is one of the world’s deadliest migration routes. More than 3,600 people are believed to have perished there in 2015, including approximately 600 children. Yet one million people, a third of them children, have braved this journey to find safety in Europe. 

Reaching their destination

When migrant and refugee children reach their destination, it’s not the end of the road. Another kind of journey begins. Refugee and migrant children and young people arrive from multiple countries, speaking several languages. They have varying levels of education. They need health care, protection and much else. Their sheer numbers strain systems, resources and societies.

Addressing this crisis – at home and globally – is a shared responsibility. No one is untouched by the impacts of these crises. The exodus of people to Europe, the crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border, the movement of people across the Bay of Bengal – all demonstrate this new global reality.

Refugee or internally displaced camps now exist in more than 125 countries. 86 per cent of the world’s refugees flee to developing countries — with least-developed countries hosting a full quarter of the total. More than two million children have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan from Syria alone.

Camps are becoming huge – and permanent. Cooper’s Camp in West Bengal, India, established in 1950, is believed to be the oldest continually running refugee camp in the world. In the Middle East, millions of Palestinians have lived in refugee camps since 1948. In Kenya’s semi-arid Garissa county, the town of Dadaab hosts 329,811 people in five camps – the largest refugee camp complex in the world.

The crisis has been a long time coming. But it has taken the large movement of refugees and migrants to Europe to focus global attention on the situation of refugees and migrants.

While enormous numbers of people are coming to Europe, North America, and other destination countries like Australia, the impact on these countries is relatively insignificant compared to what other countries, currently hosting millions of refugees, are dealing with.

Each country, poor or rich, has an obligation to protect refugees and migrants. Children are children – no matter who they are and where they come from, whether refugees or migrants. International law guarantees their rights – from protection and basic services like education and health care, to full development of their potential and active participation in making their rights a reality. All countries except the United States have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Convention dictates that the best interests of the child should guide all decisions regarding refugee and migrant children. This includes decisions on international protection, granting or refusing applications for residence, as well as transfer or return.


Read more about UNICEF and migrant and refugee children:


North Darfur, Sudan, 16 August 2016 – Mubashar from North Darfur was 5 when his mother told him they were ‘internally displaced’. “Before the war, people in my village used to grow their own food. They never needed to wait in line for assistance.


Elias, 14, is one of 2.8 million people internally displaced in Yemen
SANA’A, Yemen, 13 August 2016 ¬– “I want peace and safety and school. We need hospitals, food and water. I just want everything to become like before,” says Elias, 14, who lives in a camp outside of the capital, Sana’a.


The impact of fighting and flight on a 5-year-old boy
JEBEL, South Sudan, 12 August 2016 – Ramadan became separated form his family as they fled their home in Jebel. It took two weeks, and a dangerous journey by his father, for them to be reunited. Ramadan hasn’t said a word since they were separated.


Building peaceful futures
Chad, 11 August 2016 – Refugees from the Central African Republic and Chadian returnees live peacefully side by side with local communities in Southern Chad. Play and educational activities help children cope with stress, anxiety and loss.


Preparing for the deluge, a camp in Iraq is quickly built from scratch
DEBAGA, Iraq, 09 August 2016 – In late 2015, the Debaga displacement camp in Iraq opened as a site to shelter families that were displaced nearby. The number of residents in the camp has since increased tenfold and continues to grow, putting a strain on resources and the people living inside.


Football helps a young refugee boy cope
ZA’ATARI CAMP, Jordan, 5 August 2016 – Muhammed, 8, has been living in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan for 3 years since war forced his family to flee their home in Daraa, Syria, when he was 4. Playing football at the UNICEF-supported Makani centre helps him cope with the upheavals he’s been through and the uncertainty he lives with.


In South Sudan, child malnutrition worsens as conflict hinders response
JUBA, South Sudan, 04 August 2016 – Millions of people in South Sudan are struggling to feed themselves as a years-long conflict takes its toll on food production and the economy. Children continue to be the most seriously affected, with a sharp increase in the number being treated for malnutrition.


Syrian girls become best friends in Austria
Austria, 2 August 2016 – “I love her a lot. I don’t have anyone here but her.” Kawthar and Shadad, both 11, became best friends at an Austrian refugee center after fleeing Syria with their families. They both hope to return to school and get an education – but for now they have each other.


Zahra in the mirror
Serbia, 27 July 2016 – Four-year-old Zahra has been moving from camp to camp for most of her life. She doesn’t remember Afghanistan, her birthplace. Now in Serbia, she awaits the day her family will be allowed to cross the Hungarian border and continue their journey to Western Europe.


Helping an Afghan girl hold onto childhood
TABANOVCE, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 27 June 2016 – A Child-Friendly Space set up by UNICEF at the Tabanovce refugee and migrant transit center provides opportunities for children to learn and play – restoring a much-needed sense of normalcy to uprooted children like 12-year-old Samira, en route from Afghanistan with her family.


“Camps have become a way of life” for families fleeing violence in South Sudan 
JUBA, South Sudan, 15 July 2016 – Thousands of people continue to live in United Nations displacement sites in Juba, South Sudan, after fleeing intense battles that first erupted in the city a week ago today. Despite a ceasefire that continues to hold, many are still too frightened to return home.


For internally displaced in South Darfur, finding water is a new challenge 
KALMA CAMP, Sudan, 05 July 2016 – In the Kalma Camp for internally displaced people in the Sudan, water was once hard to come by. In 2014, a heavy influx of new arrivals meant that many people who needed water were forced to dig their own wells. Last year, UNICEF supported a project to build new water and sanitation facilities, providing an invaluable lifeline to new arrivals at the camp.


To welcome is human
Spain, 22 June 2016 – Refugee children from Honduras, Iraq, Libya and Mali are adapting to life in Spain.


The right to dream of a better future
Daresalam Camp
, Chad, 21 June 2016 – Garba Haroun, 16, and his family fled their home in Baga, Nigeria, to escape Boko Haram. In Ngouboua, Chad, he becomes friends with local Ila, 1. When Boko Haram attacked Ngouboua, both boys ended up in the Daresalam refugee camp.


School brings hope to child refugees in Chad
DARESALAM CAMP, Chad, 18 June 2016 – More than 4,900 Nigerian refugees are currently sheltering in Daresalam camp. Most of the children – like Aisha, 15, and Bello, 10 – are going to school for the first time.


From nomad to refugee
DARNAIM CAMP, Chad, 15 June 2016 – Before fleeing an attack by Boko Haram, Zara, 11, lived a nomadic life. Now, she lives in Darnaim, a refugee camp in the Lake region of Chad, along with 111,000 other people. Her life has changed drastically. She’s attending school there, for the first time.


Tough choices separate Syrian refugee family stranded on the route towards Europe
TABANOVCE, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 15 June 2016 – Unwilling to risk her life and her pregnancy, Hiba opted not to board the small, overcrowded rubber boat along with her husband. While he managed to reach Germany, the closing of Balkan borders left her stranded in the transit centre in Tabanovce.


“If you try to run, they shoot you; if you stop working they beat you. It was just like the slave trade.”
GENEVA, 14 June 2016 – More than 9 out of 10 refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe this year through Italy are unaccompanied, prompting UNICEF to warn of the growing threats of abuse, exploitation and death facing them.


From Somalia to Italy, Omar’s miraculous story of survival
Italy, 14 June 2016 – “If we stay in Somalia it’s a problem, if we leave, it’s another problem.” Back in Somalia, Omar, 18, faced forced recruitment by al-Shabaab, and saw death all around him. During his two-year journey, he escaped human traffickers and the threat of death at sea. Now that he’s safe, at a shelter for unaccompanied children in Sicily, all he can think about is his family back home: “If they can come here, I will have peace in my heart.”


Danger every step of the way
POZZALLO, Italy, 13 June 2016 –
Seven Gambian boys – who dubbed themselves the “Do it or die” crew – met while waiting to travel by boat from Libya to Italy, where they are seeking asylum.



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