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Children On the Move blog series: The Journey and Its End

You have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
                                       —Warsan Shire

For the vast majority of forcibly displaced people their journey is a short distance – the nearest place of safety. In South Sudan, it could be a few kilometres to UN-protected IDP camps or just across the border into Ethiopia. Likewise from Syria where millions find themselves in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

But as the European crisis shows, the longer the conflict, the more displaced people consider a longer journey to safety and hope. Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis make up 78% of the people on the move to Europe.

For children on the move from poverty or climate change the situation is more complicated and general longer. Little is known as much of it is irregular.

A UNICEF working paper notes there was "an acute lack of evidence into the variety of forms of migration among children and young people, with insufficient knowledge of why children and adolescents migrate, to what ends, who are their intermediaries, and how they cope throughout their journeys and displacements."

The longer the journey and the more borders which have to be crossed, the more likely a child on the move will enter the world of smugglers and illegal migration.

With millions affected, a multi-billion dollar industry has emerged to service their needs. The UNODC estimates that two of the principal smuggling routes – leading from East, North and West Africa to Europe and from South America to North America – generate about $6.75 billion a year for criminals. The global figure is likely to be much higher.

Many irregular migrants finance their trip on a pay-as-you-go basis, often making long stops along the way to work and save money in order to continue the journey. As a result, journeys may take years during which children run a high risk of being exploited, detained or exposed to other violations of their human rights.

It is also dangerous.

The Mediterranean Sea route is the world’s deadliest migration route. More than 3600 people are believed to have perished in it in 2015, including approximately 600 children. Yet one million people have braved it to find safety in Europe, a third of them children.  Globally, more than 5,100 migrants or refugees died in 2015 and 40,000 since 2000.

I don’t know what I’ve become
but I know that anywhere
is safer than here. 
   —Warsan Shire

When children on the move reach their destination, it’s the beginning of another journey, not the end of the road.

The sheer numbers of refugee and migrant children and young people who have arrived from multiple countries…speaking several languages…with varying levels of education…with health issues…with protection and other needs…create strains on systems, resources and societies.

How we respond to this at home and globally is a shared responsibility.

Shared because no one is untouched by the impacts of these multiple crises. The exodus of people to Europe or the crisis on the US and Mexican border or on the Bay of Bengal demonstrate the new reality of a global issue.

Refugee or internally displaced camps now exist in more than 125 countries. 86 per cent of the world’s refugees flee to developing countries — with least-developed countries hosting a full quarter of the total. More than two million children have fled Syria alone to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

The crisis has been a long time coming. Coopers Camp in West Bengal is believed to be the oldest continually running refugee camp in the world. 

Millions of Palestinians have lived in refugee camps since 1948.

Camps are becoming huge – as well as permanent.

Dadaab is a semi-arid town in Garissa County, Kenya. It is the site of a large complex hosting 329,811 people in five camps making it the largest refugee camp complex in the world.

But it has taken the large movement of refugees and migrants to Europe to focus global attention on this crisis.

And despite the enormity of the numbers, the resulting issues facing Europe, North America and other destination countries such as Australia remain relatively insignificant compared to those facing countries currently hosting tens of millions of refugees.

Each country, no matter how developed, has signed up to protecting refugees and migrants.

National governments have an obligation to protect children no matter who they are and where they come from, whether refugees or migrants. Children are children after all.

This has been established in international law by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees the rights of all children on their territories. It has been ratified by all countries except the USA.

The Convention states that all children — regardless of their or their parents’ migration status — benefit from special protection measures and assistance; have access to services such as education and health care; can develop their personalities, abilities and talents to the fullest potential; grow up in an environment of happiness, love and understanding; and are informed about and participate in achieving their rights in an accessible and active manner.

In all decisions regarding refugee and migrant children, countries should be guided fundamentally by the Convention – the best interests of the child - including decisions on international protection, granting or refusing applications for residence as well as decisions regarding transfer or return.

More in the Children on the Move Blog Series

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