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Two teenage boys from Gambia are looking at a map of the world. We see them from behind with their hands on the picture of Africa.
Gambian asylum seekers discuss their journey together while looking at a map on the wall at a Hot Spot, an asylum seeker reception center, in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily.

How many unaccompanied and separated children are on the move and where are they?

In order to develop the most appropriate policies and services for unaccompanied and separated children on the move, it is essential we understand as much as possible about where children are travelling to and from, how many are travelling, and why. Unfortunately, we do not have accurate statistics for unaccompanied and separated children on the move.

Where are refugees and migrants moving to and from:

If we consider the total number of people migrating across the world, it was estimated that in 2017, 258 million adults and children were on the move. This can be seen in this chart showing regions of destination:

Number of international migrants by region of destination, 2000 and 2017 (millions)

This United Nations graphic shows that in Africa in the year 2000 there were 15 million international migrant and this went up to 25 million in 2017. In Asia there were 49 million in 2000 and 80 million by 2017. In Europe there were 56 million in 2000 and 78 million in 2017. In Latin America there were 7 million in 2000 and 10 million in 2017. In Northern America there were 40 million international migrants in 2000 and 58 million by 2017. And in the Oceania region there were 5 million in 2000 and 8 million in 2017

In 2018, UNHCR published the following chart that illustrates the major countries hosting larger numbers of refugees:

Major refugee-hosting countries
In this chart of major host countries of refugees from the end of 2017 to the end of 2018, Turkey was the country hosting the largest refugee population, with 3.7 million at the end of 2018, up from 3.5 million in December 2017. Pakistan hosted the second largest refugee population with 1.4 million refugees. Uganda continued to host a large refugee population, numbering 1,165,700 at the end of 2018, a decline from the 1,350,500 reported at the end of 2017. The refugee population in Sudan increased by about 19 per cent over the course of 2018 to just over 1 million, with Sudan becoming the country with the fourth largest refugee population. During 2018, the refugee populuation in Germany continued to increase, numbering 1,063,800 at the end of the year. The registered refugee population in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the sixth largest refugee-hosting country, remained unchanged at 979,400 at the end of 2018. The refugee population in Lebanon also declined slightly, but still hosting nearly 1 million refugees at the end of 2018 (949,700), compared with 998,900 at the end of 2017. Bangladesh hosted 906,600, a decline from 932,200 the previous year. Ethiopia increased during 2018, reaching 903,200, as did Jordan who provided protection to 715,300 people, up from 691,000 in 2017

You can also find more information on the Migration Data Portal

Children on the move

In 2016, UNICEF estimated in their report Uprooted. The Growing Crisis for Refugee and Migrant Children that almost 50 million children were ‘on the move’. They were moving either within their own countries or across borders to another country. More than half of these children - 28 million - had ‘fled violence and insecurity’ and an ‘estimated 17 million children’ had been displaced within their own countries.

Unaccompanied and separated children

We are lacking full information about all unaccompanied and separated children and:

  • Where they are moving to
  • Why they are travelling
  • How old they are
  • Where they are travelling from
  • Which countries they are travelling through

This means we can only give snapshots. For example, figures provided in the 2016 UNICEF report show that approximately 100,000 unaccompanied or separated children made claims for asylum in 78 countries in 2015. But it is recognised this is an underestimate. Data published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2018) reports 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children who moved across borders were registered in 80 countries between 2015 and 2016.

There are various reasons for inaccurate and incomplete data. One reason is that some categories of children on the move are counted more systematically than others. For example, when some refugees cross official borders their crossing is recorded. However, some travel largely unnoticed, particularly if they are trying hard not to be officially identified. Some move large distances within their own country, maybe to find work, without this ever receiving any attention.

It is important that we work to improve the data on unaccompanied and separated children on the move so policies and strategic plans are more effective. This in turn will help us with adequate resourcing, including the provision of good quality support services.

The ‘See Also’ section below has links to other reading material that may be of interest to you.

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This article is from the free online course:

Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

University of Strathclyde