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Risks to unaccompanied and separated children on the move

Risks to children on the move
Two unaccompanied teenage boys are hanging from a moving train, trying to find a way to hold on and hide to allow them to cross borders.

We have already considered some of the difficult situations children are moving away from. But understanding also the risks children face while they move across countries, and reach countries of final destination, will help inform the way we respond to children and the alternative care and support we offer. Risks and vulnerabilities exist for all children on the move. These may be heightened, however, for children travelling without the protection of a parent or legal/customary caregiver.

We have summarised some of the main risks unaccompanied and separated children face into seven broad categories. These include risks due to:

  1. Abuse, violence and exploitation – this might be at the hands of different people including traffickers, armed forces, government officials, smugglers, armed gangs and even those they are travelling alongside. It includes risk of physical, psychological and sexual violence. For example, some people hold children captive for ransom money or force them to engage in theft, begging or sexual exploitation

  2. Physical hardship – for example, lack of food and water, nowhere warm or dry to sleep, no clean clothes or a place to wash. This can also include harsh conditions on long and difficult journeys as well as unsuitable places to stay

  3. Health concerns – including falling ill and not being able to get medical help. Some, for instance, suffer from malnutrition and dehydration. Children with disabilities are also on the move and may have specific health needs that are not being met. We are also aware that some of the reasons children are on the move, and the experiences they encounter while travelling, can cause physical and mental health problems

  4. Hostility, stigma and discrimination – This can result in different forms of violence ranging from verbal harassment and having possessions stolen, to all forms of physical and sexual abuse. Or it might be discrimination by charging very high prices for goods or services, or refusing access to them. Stigma and discrimination can come from members of the local community as well as what might be systematic discrimination from State authorities

  5. Lack of money – or the need for money to pay the costs of continuing a journey, perhaps leading a child to engage in hazardous activities such as having sex in return for cash. They may end up working for criminals or taking on dangerous work

  6. Inappropriate treatment by officials – such as an incorrect age assessment resulting in a child being accommodated with adults. It might be extortion at crossings including request for bribes – perhaps monetary or sexual – to allow the child to continue onwards. It could be the placement of a child in detention due to their migration status, or because an official knows of nowhere else a child can spend the night and places them in a prison cell. Imprisonment can be in extremely harsh conditions and a detainee may be ill-treated or tortured. A child can be detrimentally affected by decisions on repatriation, returned to another country or sent back to their country of origin. This might include the act of ‘refoulement’ which means return to a country where the child is in danger of persecution. Because of border closures they might have to take a different and dangerous migration route to get to their desired destination

  7. Isolation as for example, loneliness – notably if a child cannot communicate with loved ones at home or with people who only speak other languages. Isolation may also result in loss of self-esteem, depression and fear

As you can see, the risks can be very high and travelling alone can be very dangerous and frightening. As a result of their experiences, some children may reject our assistance altogether due to fear or lack of trust.

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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