As defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), unaccompanied minors are under 18 years old and “have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.” UNICEF estimates that millions of children around the world have been separated from their families. The precise number of unaccompanied children on the move at any one time is impossible to know. However, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) report that the Committee on the Rights of a Child has been “observing an increasing number of unaccompanied children in migration and their particular vulnerability.”
The reasons that children undertake dangerous journeys include: war; violence; threats by gangs and organized criminals; human rights abuses; economic deprivation; and a desire to reunify with family members. According to UNHCR representatives, some children cannot articulate the traumas that led them to migrate, or do not know why they were transported. Whatever the reasons for their flight, unaccompanied children often find themselves in life-threatening conditions, deprived of food and water and abused by smugglers and government officials. Once they reach their destinations, many live and work in unsafe environments and are highly vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation.
Government officials often treat unaccompanied migrant children as migrants first and as children second. As a result, many are denied the status-blind protections provided under international migration. Some advocate for the use of the CRC as a guide in reformulating domestic immigration law and policy. The CRC sets forth the core principles of non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, and the right to participate. The CRC’s defining principle is the best interest of the child, a standard followed by U.S. family courts. This standard requires holistic, culturally-sensitive and age-appropriate practices, including assessment of identity, vulnerabilities and protection needs.
The United States, one of the major destination countries for migrants, has reported a 90 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children who were placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) between FY 2011 (6,560) and FY 2012 (12,441) as of August 31, 2012. About 80 percent of unaccompanied migrant children come to the United States from Mexico and Central America, especially from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
After being apprehended by the U.S. immigration authorities, unaccompanied migrant children are transferred to the care of ORR and must go through immigration procedures to determine whether they may stay. Political asylum or special juvenile status are two major ways for unaccompanied migrant children to obtain permanent legal status. They can also obtain temporary visas if they were victims of human trafficking.
If not represented by legal counsel and assisted by an adult guardian in the court, unaccompanied minors often cannot sufficiently articulate their claims and, as a result, cannot obtain legal status. According to Save the Children, UNICEF and UNHCR, unaccompanied minors without legal representation should only be repatriated on a voluntary basis and only if it is considered to be in the child’s best interest. If a child must be repatriated, many child welfare advocates argue that it should be through formal reintegration programs that employ local NGOs. The Guatemalan Children Return and Repatriation Project (GCRRP), for example, is a joint reintegration initiative between The Global Fund for Children and Kids in Need of Defense. IOM runs similar pilot projects for repatriated children in El Salvador.
On July 24, 2012, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) offered a dialogue on unaccompanied migrant children featuring Wendy Young, Executive Director of KIND, with responses from Judge Gabriel Videla of the New York Immigration Court and Wendy Claudio of Children’s Village. Video and photos of the event can be found at https://cmsny.org/event/2012-unaccompanied-minors-surge/.