Child Protection


Birth registration

Violence against children


Children on the move

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1330/Bonn
A boy stands in the dormitory of a centre operated by FIDESCO, a Catholic NGO in Rwanda. FIDESCO, with support from UNICEF, operates some 35 centres in the country for children living and working on the streets.

Child migration occurs all over the world and each region has its own particular patterns and context.  In Eastern and Southern Africa, children on the move  are becoming a growing concern. This is particularly true in Southern Africa where there has been a long tradition of labour migration and population movements, impacted more recently by civil unrest and poverty that has been exacerbated by the worldwide economic downturn.

Socio-economic and political crises in the region have dramatically increased the flow of children crossing borders to seek safety and basic social services in neighbouring countries. As a result, irregular child migration across countries in the region have been alarmingly high in recent years, but efforts to establish the exact magnitude of the problem have been difficult due to the irregular nature of the movement and poor record keeping by immigrations officials.

Nonetheless there are indications that thousands of children are affected. On average, around 2,500 children from Zimbabwe are deported from South Africa every month, and children also make up a significant number of the approximately 7,000 Mozambicans deported from there. At the same time, children from the Horn of Africa countries Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia are moving to the Arabian Peninsula to take up poorly paid jobs, while many children from Madagascar and Comoros end up in the Middle East as domestic servants.

Mobility can be empowering when it enables access to education, training, income, skills, networks and increased status but it can also carry huge risks, such as exploitation, abuse, lack of family support, problems with authorities, accidents and illness. Girls and women make up a large portion of the migrant population and are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation during the entire migration process.

Trafficking and migration are two very distinct phenomena, however, where overlaps exist, the linkages are quite pronounced. Traffickers often use the “irregular” status of migrants to control them, and children are frequently among the most vulnerable victims.

Addressing child migration requires appropriate means of protection and support for children at all stages of the process – even before they start moving. However, prevention and response efforts are challenged by a lack of systematic data collection. This is especially the case with illegal and undocumented migration, which is common and includes significant numbers of unaccompanied children crossing borders.

The Save the Children regional seminar on Children on the Move (2009), with USAID and the Department of Force Migration at South Africa’s Wits University, pinpointed key areas of concern: children left behind when care givers migrate, stateless children, children who are trafficked, undocumented and unaccompanied children, and children living on the street. Additional issues raised in the seminar included lack of access to services, the need for greater advocacy and information including policy development as well as community sensitization, child labour and protection – noting the importance of documentation/birth registration as means of protection.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1393/Pirozzi
A teacher (centre) helps students in a 'catch-up' class at a primary school in Rwanda. Almost 200 previously out-of-school students attend three catch-up classes at the school.

UNICEF in action

‘Children on the move’ has now emerged as an important priority for countries in the region. There is consensus that the current system is not able to address the needs of these highly vulnerable children. Though some governments have made impressive commitments to ensure the protection of migrant children, the focus has been mostly on trafficked children who constitute only a small percentage of children on the move, and not on migrant children who take an active part in their migration process.

UNICEF is therefore advocating for a more robust inter-country and multi-agency child protection system that addresses the protection needs of migrant children. UNICEF supports efforts to develop regional systems for information sharing around migration, and to improve policy and legislation by drafting protocols that support government efforts to better protect migrant children.

A review of government and NGO documentation to identify existing agreements, plans, protocols that are applicable to child migration, and the development of inter-country agreements, plans and protocols for use by all parties involved are part of ongoing regional efforts to better protect children on the move.

Results for children

In response to the political and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe in late 2008, UNICEF in South Africa provided emergency assistance to children on the move, both in the border region and in areas where they congregated in central Johannesburg. This expanded to a capacity-building programme with the Department of Social Development to improve systems of care and protection of migrant children.

Within this framework, standard operating procedures have been developed and disseminated to social workers and information systems have been established to identify, document, trace, and reunify unaccompanied children with their families. As a result, hundreds of children were able to get an education and placement in appropriate alternative care.

In Madagascar, UNICEF supported the development of an action plan to repatriate girls and women trafficked to the Middle East to work as domestic servants. In Ethiopia, UNICEF is working with other agencies on the repatriation and reintegration of migrant children from the Middle East.



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