11 Million Refugee Children Have Nowhere To Call Home

Photo: Courtesy of UNICEF/Krepkih.
Vika, 8 years old, was displaced from Horlivka, Ukraine. She is one of 40 children living at an accommodation center for people displaced by the ongoing conflict.
Just over a year ago, a Syrian toddler whose family had been trying to escape conflict washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach.

The photographs of his tiny body, face down on the sand, caused ripples of horror and sorrow worldwide.

Days after the anniversary of Alan Kurdi’s death, UNICEF is releasing a new report aimed at highlighting the plight of children like Kurdi. The report, one of the first to study the specific effects of the refugee crisis on children, found that there were an estimated 11 million child refugees and asylum seekers in 2015, more than double the estimate from 2005. Nearly half of them are from Syria and Afghanistan alone.

“This is a growing crisis; it’s a children’s crisis. Huge numbers of these refugees — half of them — are children,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth said at a press conference.

Worldwide, more than "50 million children have migrated across borders or been forcibly displaced," with 28 million of them fleeing violence or insecurity. According to the report, almost 1 in 3 children living outside their birth countries are refugees.

There were an estimated 11 million child refugees and asylum seekers in 2015, more than double the estimate from 2005.

Children are uniquely vulnerable to the worst parts of the refugee crisis, the report found. Because children are often traveling alone or with limited resources, they are at heightened risk of exploitation, including trafficking, sexual exploitation, and enslaved labor. Forsyth noted that on one route through the Mediterranean, 9 out of 10 children traveling were alone.

“The stories they tell are horrific before they ever get onto those boats," he recounted.

He shared a story that highlighted the risks, about a young girl fleeing war in northern Nigeria who was forced into sex work in Italy. Her traffickers kept her locked in an underground prison and abused her for months before she made it to safety.

“Now she is in a children’s home in Sicily," he said. "But still, those same traffickers were trying to lure her out of that children’s home into prostitution.”

Things don’t necessarily get easier for those who do reach their destinations. The report finds that refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school, and often face discrimination, exclusion, or threats in their new countries. They are also more likely to be deported because of a lack of legal aid, and sent back to countries where they may face threats and danger. Even those who aren’t deported may be detained or incarcerated at their destination country over their migration status.

Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school.

The report makes several recommendations to help the children of the refugee crisis. This includes making it a priority to keep families together, and allowing refugee children to access the kinds of essential services that are available to citizens of their host countries — like education and health care. It urges governments to act in the best interest of the child when determining migration status and assistance.

“Some of the most basic components are beginning by recognizing that children are children. Anyone under the age of 18 is entitled to protection,” said UNICEF Policy Specialist Emily Garin, one of the primary researchers of the report.

She said that states needed to recognize their basic obligations.

“There is existing international law that protects children and obligates states that have ratified the Convention [on the Rights of the Child] to protect children, all children, on their territory regardless of their legal status, the legal status of their parents, how they arrived, [or] the conditions under which they arrived,” Garin said. “So that protection already exists. What we’re advocating for is that governments live up to their obligations that they’ve already committed themselves to.”

Refinery29 is committed to covering the women behind the headlines of the refugee crisis. Read the full multimedia feature, "Behind the Headlines: Daughters of Paradise," here. More coverage on the human faces of the world's refugee crisis can be found here.

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