May 24, 2022

Unaccompanied Minors: A Childhood Interrupted

Ogonna Kanu

The global humanitarian crisis has the worst effect on children’s lives resulting in having their childhood interrupted. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as every human being below the age of 18 years. Children belong to families and the families take care of them until they reach a certain age. Parents or guardians make decisions that consider the child’s well-being.

When families move from one place to another, then children move with them. The minors do not make decisions to migrate or undertake such journeys alone.  But more children than ever before are fleeing without adults to look after them.

Unaccompanied and Separated Children:

War and political violence around the world are the reasons for these circumstances. These children are – unaccompanied minors or separated children. Unaccompanied children are not looked after by parents, relatives or any adults. Besides, there are children who are separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Sometimes they remain under the care of relatives. Hence the term ‘separated children.’

Why Children Migrate Alone:

There are different reasons why children migrate alone. They could be fleeing persecution or  might be the victims of natural disasters. Some of them are trying to avoid conflict, gang violence, or enlistment into rebel armies.

Sometimes, the flight process separates children from their parents or older relatives. These are the times when the children need their families the most. The separated children face these turmoil alone, without the protection of their families. Which makes their stories even more heartbreaking. Parents have had to make the difficult choice to send their kids alone. Such a decision comes down to the hope of ensuring their survival.

In some cases the parents have to migrate and seek asylum first, leaving the children behind. After they have secured a safe place, only then their children migrate by themselves. More often than not these minors have to take very risky routes without any adult protection.

Current Scenario of Unaccompanied Minors:

The number of unaccompanied or separated children (USAC) are at an all time high. Now more than ever the discussions on the rights of these children have become necessary. There are 35 million children below the age of 18 who are refugees. Thousands of these children arrive in a country either on their own or with relatives. There are 153,300 unaccompanied minors and separated children worldwide. (according to a UNHCR report estimation:  )

It is almost impossible for a child to face the world alone and remain the same. The interrupted childhood compels them to assume adult responsibilities.

Older children become caregivers, protectors, and providers to their younger siblings. Often they do the unimaginable to survive. Thus, they are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Migrating alone is physically and psychologically tiring and dangerous. It exposes them to physical violence, rape, manipulation, and human trafficking.

Girls are at a greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence. The police or immigration officers also exploit these children instead of protecting them. Moreover they do not get access to adequate medical services, education. They do not get official identity or appropriate documents. Getting registration of their refugee status is also difficult.

There is not much consideration given to their needs as children. Some of these children remain in detention facilities in inhumane conditions. It contributes to them having childhood interrupted. The detention facilities force them to stay with adults they do not know. Children in such facilities suffer physical, emotional, and psychological trauma.

Sometimes the children do not get asylum and end up returning to their countries. There are possibilities of mismanagement in their asylum requests. The authorities are not attentive to their needs. At least not in an age-appropriate or gender-sensitive manner.

Some Commendable Initiatives: 

The European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled on the unlawful detention of migrant children in EU states. As per international law, authorities should not detain the children. Humanitarian organizations around the world have made a strong stance favoring this law.

UNICEF and UNHCR insist on a Best Interest Analysis (BIA) before a decision to detain a child. It should identify the action in the child’s best interest. Authorities can only detain children after carefully considering their physical and mental safety. BIA should also highly consider their age and gender before deciding to detain them.

UNHCR also advocates child-appropriate alternatives to detention. They suggest connecting children with relatives in the country of asylum. They also suggest for children the foster care systems or residential quarters. UNHCR is also pushing initiatives, such as:

  • Supervised independent living in Greece
  • Guardianship program in Italy
  • Protection coordinators initiative in Germany

These projects have benefitted from the direct input of children. Moreover these projects have made a positive impact in a lot of migrant children’s lives.

Awakening Amongst Everyone:

The issues faced by unaccompanied children have prompted people everywhere to speak out. People are making an effort to learn more about migration issues. Some governments and policies add more trauma to these children’s lives.

People are speaking against such tendencies.  They are also educating others to become more involved in this movement. Also, they are encouraging people to support local NGOs by donating time and money. All these efforts have been successful in raising awareness about this sensitive issue.

Standing for the rights of refugee children is long overdue. No child deserves to have their childhood interrupted. The recent initiatives for the unaccompanied minor and separated children have positive impacts.

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About the Author
Ogonna Kanu

Ogonna Kanu

Ogonna’s postgraduate thesis on unarmed civilian peacekeeping ignited her interest in FCVs (fragile, conflict and violence affected areas) and the global refugee crisis. Before then, she had for many years volunteered – and still continues to volunteer her skills and time to causes and NGOs that align with her values; and remains an avid supporter of interventions in the social development sector. This UMR volunteer blog role provides an exciting opportunity to write about issues she cares about and also broaden her knowledge of the humanitarian/development sector. At the same time, she is able to bring much needed attention to the plight of vulnerable persons and undeserved communities. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Lagos in Nigeria.
Ogonna Kanu

Ogonna Kanu

Ogonna’s postgraduate thesis on unarmed civilian peacekeeping ignited her interest in FCVs (fragile, conflict and violence affected areas) and the global refugee crisis. Before then, she had for many years volunteered – and still continues to volunteer her skills and time to causes and NGOs that align with her values; and remains an avid supporter of interventions in the social development sector. This UMR volunteer blog role provides an exciting opportunity to write about issues she cares about and also broaden her knowledge of the humanitarian/development sector. At the same time, she is able to bring much needed attention to the plight of vulnerable persons and undeserved communities. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Lagos in Nigeria.
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