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Heightened Risks to Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Discover the factors responsible for heightened risks of children to COVID-19 during the global pandemic.
Young girl sitting on a bench inside a building with a woman wearing a mask from UNHCR putting a label around the girls wrist.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible the number of child protection cases will rise, including concerns for unaccompanied and separated refugee and migrant children. It is important to remember that international standards, such as the UNCRC, the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, and other human rights conventions are still applicable during the pandemic. However, COVID-19 poses specific challenges and risks to children with regards to appropriate care both at the policy or system level and in work with individual children. This may lead to more children being at greater risk if travelling alone, of separation from the care of parents or other primary caregivers, and in need of alternative care. It may also be that kinship, foster carers and staff in residential care, may need additional support to stay safe, prevent the spread of disease and protect the children in their care.

Situations due to the COVID-19 pandemic that might contribute to the heightened risk of a child include:
  • Refugee, asylum-seeking and migrant children who may have crossed a border before their caregiver and then the borders were closed – or when caregivers went ahead of the child and the border closed
  • Children who become separated from families and primary caregivers due to death, disability or illness, if one or the other is isolated for quarantine, or the child is abandoned after they have received treatment or were quarantined
  • Children in households or care facilities lead to tensions between caregivers and children and increased adult frustration and violence
  • Children where loss of household/care facility income or other circumstances increase the risk of their engagement in child labour and vulnerable to other forms of exploitation including trafficking.
We also urge you to read the Inter-agency Technical Note that has been issued on the protection of children and alternative care during the COVID-19 Pandemic and other resources on alternative care, such as Technical Guidance for Alternative Care Provision during COVID-19. This includes an overview of risks for children, that may arise:
  • Who are unaccompanied and separated refugee, migrant and internally displaced and may face additional challenges due to such issues as lack of documentation, linguistic ability, stigma and discrimination. They may also become at a heightened risk of deportation and return to countries against their will and to situations that may not be safe
  • Living on the streets – their access to help and services may become even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. They may face arrests and detention. Many will lose their usual ways to earn money. Those now living alone on the streets may be additionally vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence
  • Deprived of liberty and living in such settings as detention centres
  • Suffering the consequences of economic pressures, which may increase the numbers living in poverty and eventual unnecessary separation and forcing children to migrate alone
  • In kinship and foster care – due to carers needing to temporarily relinquish care of a child if, for example, their health is at risk, or they become ill, or cannot cope financially
  • In residential settings – including institutions, group homes, boarding schools, detention centres, and shelters/transit centres – where rapid closures mean children are being returned to their families and communities – and countries – without any proper preparation. Children remaining in a group environment such as residential facilities face risk of infections spreading quickly. This is especially a concern for children with disabilities who, due to specific pre-existing conditions or impairments, including immune deficiencies, may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and being more severely affected by it
  • Now in independent living arrangements where there may suffer extreme social isolation and lack access to financial and other practical support.

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

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Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

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