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More Than 300,000 Unaccompanied Children Migrated Alone in 2015 and 2016

A new report details the risks faced by minors who flee their home countries

On 19 March 2017 in Serbia, 9-year-old Ibrahim and 11-year-old Abuzar, both from Afghanistan, eat food they received during a lunchtime meal distribution, outside dilapidated warehouse buildings at an informal squatter settlement known as The Barracks, in Belgrade, the capital. (© UNICEF/UN058491/Va)
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War, poverty and desperation cause hundreds of thousands of children—most of them unaccompanied—to become migrants, crossing borders in search of asylum and a new life. But just how many kids are on the move each year? Unicef, the United Nations child agency, has new answers, reports the Associated Press, and the data offers a sobering glimpse at the plights of children who must migrate alone.

The agency has counted more than 300,000 migrating kids over a two-year period, the AP reports. One hundred and seventy thousand of them sought asylum in Europe, and a third crossed the U.S./Mexico border. Many have parents at home, but some don’t—and when they arrive at their new countries they often face difficulties just as dire as the ones they left behind.

The report looks at not just how many kids are crossing borders, but the risks they face when they get to their destinations. The number of children seeking asylum in Europe has increased almost tenfold since 2008, the agency says, with the share of children among asylum seekers moving from one in five to one in three.

Along the way, they are at high risk of trafficking and exploitation, especially since migrant smuggling is common. Slavery, prostitution, coercion and other forms of abuse often await them, and trafficking and smuggling operations often follow the same routes.

Even when they arrive, the agency says, the risk does not diminish. Many unaccompanied minors live under the radar and do not receive the services they need. Others spend months or years in refugee camps, are detained or deported, or are treated without regard for their legal rights.

In the United States, unaccompanied children who are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security are cared for by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which requires that facilities that detain children be licensed for child care. Children who aren’t detained, though, are on their own, and as KALW’s Liza Veale reports, they often lack basic services and become homeless. And while those who are detained in Mexico are supposed to be placed in children’s shelters to begin the asylum process, in 2015, Mexico’s Human Rights Commission found that instead, they often get stuck in Mexican detention centers under questionable conditions, reports PRI’s Valeria Fernández. And conditions in EU countries are no better: A recent EU study found that Greek and Italian migrant centers are rife with child abuse.

Unicef calls for special protections for child migrants, including introducing alternatives to detention and access to education and health services. The agency also says that countries with large groups of child migrants should fight discrimination and xenophobia within their own borders to prevent kids from being marginalized. But until the underlying causes of migration are solved, the agency warns, there’s little chance the large-scale movements of children will stop. 

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