New approach needed to ensure protection and care for unaccompanied migrant children in the United States

UNICEF issues report – “Building Bridges for Every Child: Reception, Care and Services to Support Unaccompanied Children in the United States”

25 February 2021

NEW YORK, 26 February 2021 – A new approach is needed to ensure that unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children in the United States receive proper reception, care and support services, UNICEF announced today.

The announcement came as the UN Children’s Agency released a new report– “Building Bridges for Every Child: Reception, Care and Services to Support Unaccompanied Children in the United States”– which presents recommendations for the care and support of every migrant child, no matter their story, where they were born, or why they arrived unaccompanied.

“Each year, thousands of unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children make their way to the U.S., with many fleeing violence and devastating poverty or in the hope of reuniting with family members,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, Director of UNICEF’s Programme Division. “These children are brimming with hope and potential, but they are among the most vulnerable in the world. Our report provides a roadmap showing how the U.S. government and its partners can draw on experiences in the U.S. and globally to develop a long-term vision for reception, care and protection of unaccompanied children.”

Providing child-sensitive and adequate reception and care for the large and growing number of children on the move around the world, particularly those who are unaccompanied or separated from their parents or primary caregivers, is a global concern and an important priority for UNICEF.  In January 2020, UNICEF and UNICEF USA (a U.S.-based entity) joined forces to launch the Building Bridges Initiative to bring together the worlds of international child rights and protection, immigration and domestic child welfare in the U.S. The initiative combines UNICEF’s global expertise with UNICEF USA’s unique experience in advocating and raising awareness on global child protection needs in the U.S. context.

The U.S. has a long history of offering refuge to children in need as well as advocating for children to be in protective family care. This new report and its recommendations coincide with recent steps taken by the U.S. Government to prioritize keeping asylum-seeking families together. The report’s findings may help inform the development of a more child-sensitive system that builds on the U.S. system’s strengths and addresses the known challenges.

This report offers encouragement for U.S. policy makers and practitioners to build on that tradition by extending the same levels of care and protection to migrant and asylum-seeking children. It also urges governments to end child immigration detention and scale up family- and community-based reception, care and support services for children, both in the U.S. and across the region.

With a focus on practical solutions and promising practices in the U.S. and from around the world, Building Bridgesseeks to bridge the worlds of international child rights and protection, immigration and domestic child welfare. It illustrates how reception, care and services for unaccompanied migrant children in the U.S. and across the region can be built around the best interests of each child.

The report follows the journey of children traveling alone from northern Central America to the U.S. – entering, navigating and leaving the U.S. reception and care system and transitioning to community life.

“Gang violence, extortion, endemic poverty and lack of learning and earning opportunities are part of daily life for millions of children and families across northern Central America,” said Wijesekera. “The COVID-19 pandemic and recent natural disasters, including Hurricanes Eta and Iota, have made conditions more challenging. That is why we are calling for the expansion of safe and legal pathways for children to seek protection and reunite with family in the U.S.”

Building Bridges presents eight overarching policy recommendations:

  1. Uphold all children’s rights to access protection, to seek asylum and remain and reunite with family members, while taking public health precautions. This includes ending pushbacks and forced expulsions of all children without due process.
  2. Strengthen child-sensitive border and reception processes.
  3. Prioritize family- and community-based care and case management as alternatives to immigration detention and institutional care.
  4. Ensure inclusion, non-discrimination and equity in care, and strengthen linkages between the unaccompanied children’s program and other children’s programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (HHS/ACF) to ensure consistent standards of care and protection.
  5. Establish best interest determinations as a core component of the system for unaccompanied children and ensure that each unaccompanied child is appointed an independent child advocate.
  6. Support every child to participate in all matters affecting him or her, including decisions related to placement, care and access to services, in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
  7. Scale up post-release services, case management and integrated support so that each unaccompanied child receives continuity of care as they transition to families and local communities. Ensure that every unaccompanied child has access to free legal representation during immigration proceedings.
  8. Ensure child-sensitive return and reintegration support for every child for whom returning to country of origin is safe and in his or her best interests.


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Christopher Tidey
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