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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

Family separation in emergencies

© UNICEF/NYHQ2005-0839/Josh Estey
A girl views a wall of photographs of missing and unaccompanied children in the UNICEF-assisted children's centre in the TVRI camp for people displaced by the tsunami, in Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh Province.

Every emergency, whether a rapid onset natural disaster or armed conflict, often leads to the separation of children from their families and caregivers in the commotion of survival and flight. In major humanitarian crises, as in Haiti following the earthquake in January 2010, thousands of children may be lost or missing their families. The longer a child is separated from her or his family, the more difficult it is to locate them and the more at risk a child is to violence, economic and sexual exploitation, abuse and potential trafficking. 

During emergencies, children want to be with their family and families want to be together.  Experience has shown that most separated children have parents or other family members willing and able to care for them.  Accordingly, UNICEF works to provide unaccompanied and separated children with services aimed at reuniting them with their parents or customary care-givers as quickly as possible, in coordination with government authorities.  If arrangements for interim care are required, UNICEF promotes that they be provided in a way that preserves family unity, including of siblings, are consistent with the aim of family reunification and ensure children’s protection and well-being. Community care, including fostering, is generally preferable to residential care, as it provides continuity in socialization and development. Long-term stable care arrangements, including adoption, should not be made during the emergency phase.

Together with governments, UNICEF also actively works to prevent family separation from taking place through emergency preparedness measures in disaster prone countries, as well as during an emergency by supporting vulnerable families to access basic relief supplies and services; limiting and restricting the use of residential care options unless absolutely necessary; ensuring that medical evacuations of children are undertaken in a way to support the reunification of children with their families once a child has been treated; and raising awareness amongst communities about the risks of family separation.

The Inter-agency guiding principles on unaccompanied and separated children (2004) and the United Nations guidelines for the alternative care of children (2010), applying both in development contexts and during armed conflicts or natural disasters provide the normative framework on protecting unaccompanied and separated children.

Visit the resources page for more information.




Separated children are those separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary care-giver, but not necessarily from other relatives. These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members.

Unaccompanied children are children who have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.

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