Children in migration: the realities of the pandemic

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic to children’s migration

Children affected by the migration process
UNICEF Kazakhstan/2020/NGO Sana Sezim
31 May 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all children significantly, with negative consequences for their education, health and overall wellbeing. Children in migration have felt this impact even more acutely. They already faced vulnerability before the pandemic and the new developments exposed them to additional risks of detention by immigration authorities, abuse, exploitation or violence.

In the summer of 2020, every day, migrants gathered at the Zhibek Zholy border post in the Saryagash district of the Turkestan region, hoping to return to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Many migrant families with children were forced to stay right at the border despite the absence of decent living conditions. At the peak, the number of people stranded reached 3,000. At that point, about 25% of this group were women and children. People had to stay at the border from a few days to several weeks living in tents in hot weather with limited access to sanitation facilities, inadequate access to food and general difficulty in implementing social distancing measures.

The reason for the situation was that in March 2020, Uzbekistan closed its borders to neighbouring countries because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of places in the quarantine centre on the Uzbek side of the border, where everyone arriving from abroad was placed for 14 days.

“These are labour migrants from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As a result of imposed quarantine measures and business closures, they lost their jobs. Therefore, migrants have had return to their home country. We cooperated with the embassies of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Kazakhstan and every day they were informing us on the number of people at the border. Having received the data, we were collecting provisions, preparing sanitary kits, and heading for them. Usually neither children nor women refused help,” says Raushan Khudayshukurova, a representative of the NGO Sana Sezim.

According to the international Organization for Migration (IOM), in 2019, almost 2.7–4.2 million labour migrants, or 10–16% of the economically active population of Central Asia migrated from Central Asia mainly to the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan. Most of them are citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Approximately 420,000 labour migrants are registered in Kazakhstan. According to official statistics, from June 2020, 2.9 million foreigners entered Kazakhstan, including from Uzbekistan – 1.3 million; Russian Federation – 688 400; Kyrgyzstan – 567 300; Tajikistan – 191,200 people. 

The programme “Protecting Children Affected by Migration in Southeast, South and Central Asia” is funded by the European Union. The allocated funds help children of migrants, forcibly displaced, abandoned by their parents or guardians, who have migrated to other countries in search of a better economic opportunity to support their families. 

“We are happy that, thanks to our joint UNICEF-European Union programme “Protection of Children in Migration Processes'', the UNICEF team was very quickly able to deliver more than 2,000 daily sanitary kits for children and women awaiting permission to return home to Uzbekistan. The main mission of this programme, financed by the European Union and implemented by UNICEF, is to provide comprehensive social, psychological, and legal assistance to children in migration processes,” noted Sven-Olov Carlsson, Ambassador of the European Union to Kazakhstan.


NGO Sana Sezim volunteer giving a sanitary kit to a migrant
UNICEF Kazakhstan/2020/NGO Sana Sezim
NGO Sana Sezim volunteer giving a sanitary kit to a migrant

“When their parents had a job, these children also had a more or less harmonious life. They had a roof over their heads, hot food, friends in the yard. And now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, their whole life has turned upside down. Migrant children at the border were stressed exponentially. Firstly, the uncertainty – there is no information when they will be allowed to cross the border. Secondly, the lack of hygiene – children who had to spend their nights at the border were deprived not only of a warm bed, but also of ordinary hygiene products. Thirdly, the interruption of education – being not at home, especially in such a situation as at the border, children had no opportunity to acquire knowledge, no access to school, books, or a stable internet connection,” explains Raushan Khudayshukurova, a representative of the NGO Sana Sezim.

A line of migrants at Zhibek Zholy border post receiving sanitation kits
Credit: UNICEF Kazakhstan/2020/Nazira Kaiymova
A line of migrants at Zhibek Zholy border post receiving sanitation kits

“Migrant children are, first of all, children who have the same rights to basic services as national children. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, and left many migrant children in prolonged limbo, stuck in temporary and inadequate accommodation, without access to education, medical care, hygiene, and protection services. Across the region, UNICEF is working hard to meet the needs of migrant children, and to ensure they are included in national plans to address the range of challenges they face. We are grateful to our partners, the European Union, who are working with us to achieve this goal,” said Arthur van Diesen, UNICEF Representative to Kazakhstan.


The programme on protection of children affected by migration is funded by the European Union and implemented by UNICEF in seven countries in partnership with the governments of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Thailand. The goal of the programme is to enhance the system for effective protection of children affected by migration. Implementation period: 2017-2021.

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of UNICEF Kazakhstan and do not necessarily reflect  the  views  of  the European Union.