Migration is a core coping strategy for many children and young people across the globe, whether on their own or with their families. But it can also make children and young people vulnerable to further harm and deprivation in the absence of adequate and reliable services and social and economic support. While levels of vulnerability are dependent on multiple factors, COVID-19 is likely to pose an additional threat for those who are in transit, and those who have moved away from their homes and are living in uncertain circumstances. The protection of migrant children needs to be a central component of the COVID-19 response.
We were scared to ask anyone else for help.If your friends won’t help you, then why would anyone else? – Young female migrant, 19 years old, Somalia
UNICEF Innocenti is leading a research study across Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan exploring the harms, vulnerabilities and wellbeing of children and young people who have left their homes either out of choice or coercion. Over 1,200 children and young people (aged between 14 and 24 years) were surveyed in 2019 and insights from this data point to a number of challenges likely to be faced by both girls and boys, many of whom live in squalid and cramped conditions, in the context of public health responses to curbing the spread of the coronavirus/COVID-19.
First, the emphasis on handwashing assumes at a minimum access to water and soap. Yet in our research sample, almost four in ten (37%) of children and young people on the move do not have access to facilities to wash themselves. This is true for those living in camps as well as those in urban or other areas. As health authorities urge people to wash their hands regularly as an effective way to stop virus transmission, this lack of access puts those who have moved away from their homes in much greater harm.
Furthermore, it is not just hygiene and washing facilities that are lacking for these vulnerable children. Many children and young people on the move are excluded from other basic services: one in four have not been able to access health services when they needed them, one in four reported being unable to access shelter or accommodation, and two in five have not been able to go to school when they wanted to. COVID-19 is likely to place further strain on struggling public services, either through greater demand (health) or closures (schools). Inevitably, the result will be more vulnerable children unable to get basic support.
Second, many global and national policy responses to COVID-19 – such as lockdown and quarantine – require family and social networks being available to provide support in a time of crisis. Yet in our research sample, one in five children and young people on the move report living alone (and this is more so for boys than girls). As a result, it is likely that they will find it much harder to get the help they need, particularly if the state and public services come under greater strain as the COVID-19 disease spreads. Programmes of support should therefore make sure they can support even the hardest-to-reach vulnerable groups. Where mechanisms such as social distancing and isolation are called for, it cannot be assumed that children and young people have a safe space to which they can retreat.
Third, experience so far shows that providing simple, credible information on what the public should or must do is a core part of the strategies for slowing the spread of the virus. Quite rightly, many governments and health agencies are using digital platforms to engage the public, and to allow services such as schooling to be delivered by digital means. However, this assumes access to the internet, and yet our findings show that as few as one in four children and young people on the move had access to the Internet (and as low as 15% for 14-17 years old). Language and other cultural barriers were also seen to present a significant challenge for those who were outside of their country of origin. Communications and engagement campaigns therefore must also unlock non-digital assets and be aware of the need for linguistically and culturally relevant messaging.
Furthermore, not only are messages that are scientifically grounded important, but so are the messengers for effective communication: issues of trust are crucial in ensuring that people comply with key messaging. Our research suggests that police and government officials are among the least trusted groups for migrant children, while many more have confidence in social workers, religious groups, international charities and teachers. Therefore, it is imperative that governments continue to fund and support these actors to continue to provide much needed information and support to reach migrant children and young people.
Fourth, even while we head into the eye of this particular storm it is also important to consider the medium to long-term economic consequences of the health pandemic. Economic concern was a contributing factor for why two in every three child or young person first moved from their home area. If economies are hard hit over the next few months, it is very likely that this will lead to an increase in children and young people being compelled to leave their homes in search of jobs and safety.
The impacts of COVID-19 and policy responses on current migrants should not be underestimated. Already at the receiving end of stigma and discrimination, safe migration routes are only likely to shrink further, leaving migrant children and young people further exposed to risks of exploitation in order to facilitate their journeys. Our research points to some of the harms associated with smuggling and trafficking networks in the region. With humanitarian services already stretched far beyond capacity, the economic fallout will only create further negative consequences for those who are already vulnerable. Furthermore, with increasing border closures and regulation, migrant children and young people are likely to find it harder to be united with families who have already migrated or to return home safely. And with so much attention on the demands of a pandemic, mechanisms for protection – such that they are – will only be stretched thinner.
The findings presented here are based on a DFID-funded project on Understanding the Perceptions, Experiences and Vulnerabilities of Children and Young People on the Move in the Horn of Africa. A comprehensive research report is currently being drafted and will be published in the second half of 2020. However, given the seriousness of the current pandemic, UNICEF Innocenti has produced this blog with analysis of relevant findings to provide useful insights to support governments and agencies responsible for protecting and supporting children on the move
UN Migration Network Statement ‘Covid-19 Does not discriminate, nor should our response’ (20 March 2020): https://migrationnetwork.un.org/statements/covid-19-does-not-discriminate-nor-should-our-response
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ‘Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): What you need to know about the virus to protect you and your family’. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/covid-19
Henrietta Fore (UNICEF) ‘Time is running out to protect refugees from a coronavirus crisis, Aljazeera, 31 March 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/time-running-protect-refugees-coronavirus-crisis-200330063002696.html