The Young Ones: Children and Youth in Migration
Rarely considered as a stand-alone group in migration debates, young migrants comprise a growing percentage of the total number of migrants in the world. According to a report from the United Nations Population Fund, young people make up about a quarter of the total number of migrants worldwide. As the total number of international migrants increases, so does the number of children and youth that are affected by this global phenomenon.
Who are the Children and Youth Affected by Migration?
The children and young people that are affected by migration include those who migrate to other countries together with their families, those left behind by one or both parents because they migrated, and those who migrate on their own. Most young migrants come from developing countries, where young people make up about 30% of the population. They generally migrate alone or with their families, to better-off neighbouring countries, or to developed countries.
Children and youth affected by migration can be found all over the world. To name some examples:
- South Asian boys who work as camel jockeys in the Gulf,
- Teenagers who leave Mexico to go to the United States,
- Moroccan teens smuggled into the Canary Islands,
- Female victims of trafficking and young women sent off for marriage,
- Children forced to beg in tourist attractions,
- Young girls who do the domestic work for better-off families in many developing countries (some of them hoping to save up money for marriage back home),
- Children sent from poor, rural areas to work in richer urban areas to help their families,
- Children who suddenly find themselves as heads of parentless-household because their parents have migrated, and
- The children of migrants who belong, culturally speaking, both to their parents' home and host countries.
Youth that Migrate Alone
Just like adults, young people that migrate on their own may do so within their own country (typically from rural to urban areas), to neighbouring countries that are part of the same labour market, or in other cases, to richer and more distant countries.
Young people may migrate on their own for any number of reasons, including fleeing abusive families, forced marriages, lack of schooling, discrimination, war and persecution. Additionally, they may leave their homes to be reunited with other family members who have migrated beforehand and as a result of pressure - both explicit and implicit - from other family members to contribute to the household income.
"[M]y mother decided to send me for work as a cleaner in some hotel. The two major considerations were that there would be one mouth less to compete for food and that I would earn extra money that would help my mother to purchase groceries."
Young man who first migrated at the age of 10, quoted in a report from the Development Research Centre on Migration
And, just like adults, the young also migrate because they want to improve their economic situation.
"I wanted to earn some money because back home I had to ask my father to buy things for me and he couldn't buy all the things I'd like to have."
17-year old boy who left his village for a bigger city in Burkina Faso, quoted in a report from the Development Research Centre on Migration
Young people who migrate alone are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, and may face legal difficulties related to their irregular immigration status. See the UNICEF report "Children, Youth and Migration"
Children that Migrate with their Parents
One of the major advantages that children who migrate with their parents may experience is the improvement of their living standards, not just because of economic gains but also as the result of improved access to a better education and health services. Additionally, if the family remains united, the children and youth who migrate will likely benefit from the stability that comes with being together with their parents.
But these children also face disadvantages. Migrant children may experience dangers in travelling to the country of destination, discrimination and exclusion, language barriers and difficulties in adapting to the new country's culture while reconciling this with their own cultural background.
"I can't say I'm one thing or the other. I'm a Moroccan Berber who was born in the Netherlands, with Dutch citizenship. I'm both, and that enriches me and troubles me too, all at the same time."
Young woman with Moroccan parents in the Netherlands as quoted in UNFPA report.
Children of migrant parents generally also live in poorer households than children of non-migrant parents. In the United States, for example 54% of children of migrants live in households where the family income is below the poverty level, while 36% of children of non-immigrants live in low-income households.1 A lower household income usually translates into "increased food insecurity, a greater likelihood of living in crowded housing, poorer health, and lower rates of health insurance coverage."2
In addition to facing greater poverty rates, children of migrants may, depending on the residency and citizenship rules of their host and home countries, find themselves potentially stateless: ineligible for citizenship in either their host or home countries.3
Children Left Behind
At first blush, children that are left behind by one or both migrating parents may seem to benefit from their parents' migration because their parents' remittances often increase their overall material wealth, as well as their access to healthcare and education. For example, a 2003 study of children in the Philippines found that children of migrants were much more likely to attend private schools which are considered to be better than state schools, than the children of non-migrants.4 Parental migration can also help empower young women that are left behind, as they gain a greater decisional role in their household than they may have otherwise had in a conservative society.5
It is commonly said that children who are left behind are sometimes left alone, and even when they are left in the care of someone (usually a member of their extended family), they are likely to suffer psychological effects from the break up of the family unit.6
"When they left for the first time I felt lonely in this crazy world . . . I have never opened my heart to anyone since then."7
Moldovan child explaining the feelings caused by parents' migration.
"I get more money and I have more freedom, but I get into more fights and no one supervises me."8
Trinidadian child's perception of the impact of parental migration.
Indeed, UNICEF country studies suggest that children and youth that are left behind have a greater incidence of drug abuse and teen pregnancy, and are more prone to bouts of violent behaviour than children who live with their parents.9 Additionally, some studies find that children left behind face discrimination in their communities as a result of their parents' migration.10
Issues Specifically Affecting Child and Youth Migrants
While young migrants face many of the same issues that affect adult migrants, they face additional challenges as a result of their age.
First, children and youth who migrate are more susceptible to human rights abuses, such as labour exploitation, trafficking and physical abuse. For example, in the Gulf region, it is mainly children that are trafficked for camel jockeying, marriages, and begging.11 And in Spain, Human Rights Watch reports that while adults facing deportation are provided with lawyers, the state does not provide such legal assistance to children. Indeed, the government has even attempted to block pro bono attorneys from representing migrant children who face deportation.12
Sometimes it is the children's own families that may unwittingly help perpetuate abuses against them. For example, some Ghanaian families have unknowingly sent their children to work under abusive conditions in fishing villages, believing that their children would be well-treated and taught a useful trade.13
Similarly, in Argentina, many migrant families cannot make ends meet unless their children also generate income. With few opportunities for meaningful work and education, many of these children become cartoneros (scavengers who look through rubbish dumps for recyclable materials).14
Second, children and youth who migrate may, at times, be treated as adults for legal purposes, effectively giving them less legal protection than they are entitled to based on their age. They may, for example be using false documents that state them to be older than they really are, or they may have been erroneously classified adults by immigration authorities. In the Canary Islands in Spain, for example, migrant children are sometimes not referred to child protective services because immigration officials mistakenly determine that they are older than is the case.15 To make matters worse, the Spanish government has on occasion repatriated unaccompanied children, subjecting them to further abuses in their home country. For instance, instead of being reunited with their families, some of these children are turned out onto the street and left to fend for themselves.16
Third, although international human rights conventions list access to healthcare and education as fundamental rights, children and youth may be denied access to them for any number of reasons. In addition to language barriers, they may lack identification documents proving their eligibility for these services, or they may face arbitrary denial of these services by the officials in charge. Furthermore, children who migrated with their families may not be able to take advantage of these services because their parents fear detection by the authorities or because their parents simply cannot afford to pay fees and expenses that may be associated with medical services or schooling.
1 Children of Immigrants: Facts and Figures, The Urban Institute, available at www.urban.org/publications/900955.html
2 Children of Immigrants: Facts and Figures, The Urban Institute, available at www.urban.org/publications/900955.html
3 Children, Youth and Migration, UNICEF, available at www.un.org/esa/population/migration/turin/Turin_Statements/UNICEF.pdf
4 Children of International Migrants in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines: A Review of Evidence and Policies, page 5, available at www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/iwp2005_05.pdf
5 Children, Youth and Migration, UNICEF, available at www.un.org/esa/population/migration/turin/Turin_Statements/UNICEF.pdf
6 Children, Youth and Migration, UNICEF, available at www.un.org/esa/population/migration/turin/Turin_Statements/UNICEF.pdf
7 The Situation of Children Left Behind by Migrating Parents Moldova Children Left Behind, UNICEF Country Office in Moldova, available at www.gfmd-fmmd.org/en/document-library-en/42
8 Children of Migration, Links Between Migration, Parenting & Children's Rights, Dr Adele Jones, The University of The West Indies, Trinidad, available at www.familyandparenting.org/speechesAndPresentations?sftype=Speeches+and+...
9 Children and Migration, UNICEF, available at www.gfmd-fmmd.org/en/system/files/CHILDREN+AND+MIGRATION.pdf
10 What Emigration Leaves Behind: The Situation of Emigrants and their Families in Ecuador, Inter-American Development Bank, page 29, available at idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=1334869
11 Regional Conference on The Situation of Migrant Workers in Asia and the Arab Region, International Federation for Human Rights, available at www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/MigrationDohaasiearab497ang2008.pdf
12 Unwelcome Responsibilities: Spain's Failure to Protect the Rights of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the Canary Islands, Human Rights Watch, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/spain0707/spain0707web.pdf
13 When Rescue is not the End But a Beginning - Ghanaian Child Victims of Trafficking, International Organization for Migration, available at www.iom.int/jahia/Jahia/media/featurestories/featureArticleAF/cache/offo...
14 Recuperar: Preventing and Eradicating Child Labour in Migrant Families, International Organization for Migration, available atwww.iom.int/jahia/Jahia/activities/by-theme/regulating-migration/counter-trafficking/recuperar-preventing-and-eradicating-child-labour-migrant-families
15 Unwelcome Responsibilities: Spain's Failure to Protect the Rights of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the Canary Islands, Human Rights Watch, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/spain0707/spain0707web.pdf
16 Unwelcome Responsibilities: Spain's Failure to Protect the Rights of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the Canary Islands, Human Rights Watch, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/spain0707/spain0707web.pdf