Universal Children’s Day: Leaving No (Migrant) Child Behind


The celebration of Universal Children’s Day on 20th November presents an opportunity to assess how the international protection of child migrants can be improved. In the context of the global refugee crisis, this commentary outlines some of the main global trends in child migration, focuses on the specific vulnerabilities of migrant child labor, and provides two policy-based recommendations that call for accurate data and a more robust evidence base.

There are two main UN frameworks that specifically protect the fundamental rights of children: the Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1959 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989. The Convention, the world’s most widely ratified international human rights treaty, calls upon states to protect the civil and social rights of all children on their territories without discrimination. While numerous efforts have been made to protect the rights of children, for many child migrants, especially child migrant laborers, much remains to be done.

Children are affected by migration in a variety of ways. In many (developing) regions of the world, it is common practice for children to be left behind as a result of economic migration. Research has shown that, while economically such children may experience an improvement in their living standards—with regard to access to health, education etc.—thanks to remittances, often children who have been left behind suffer emotionally and psychologically. Children who migrate with their parents are confronted with discrimination and xenophobia in addition to the economic and social hardships that can come from trying to integrate in host countries.

Presently there are fifty million children who have migrated across borders or been forcibly displaced. According to a recent UNICEF report, more than 50 percent are fleeing violence and insecurity. Globally, children make up half of all refugees. In 2015, 98,400 unaccompanied or separated children—mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia—filed for asylum in 78 countries. In addition to the trauma experienced in their countries of origin and during transit, migrant children, especially those who travel without a parent or guardian, are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

According to recent UNICEF data, more than 150 million children engage in child labor. Children are classified as child laborers when they are either too young to work or are involved in hazardous activities that negatively affect their physical, mental, social or educational development. The lack of global statistics on the number of child laborers who are migrants makes it difficult to accurately assess needs and design effective responses.

According to the International Labor Organization’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), due to the fact that child migrants often travel without proper documentation, they are unable to access basic social services, for example health and education needs, amplifying their vulnerability. Research at the country level estimates that almost half a million child migrants work as domestic servants in Bangladesh, more than a quarter of a million migrant child laborers work in seasonal cotton harvesting in Turkey, and that in several sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana, many child migrants are beggars and rag-pickers.

Most recently, the EU’s response to the refugee crisis has been criticized for putting child asylum seekers at risk of trafficking and exploitation. There were reports that many of the children at the ‘Calais Jungle’ were sexually exploited.  A recent BBC investigation found that child refugees from Syria were working as laborers in Turkish clothing factories. In addition to working more than 12 hours a day, these children receive very little pay and are poorly treated. Furthermore, child migrant laborers tend to be subjected to harsher and more deplorable working conditions compared to ‘local’ child laborers.

The 2010 Global Child Labour Conference produced a Roadmap for Achieving the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2016. The roadmap contained action items for governments to develop policy priorities to strengthen access to education, social protection and decent work. While there has been a reduction overall in the number of children engaged in hazardous work worldwide, one can assume that the decrease in global peace during 2016, according to the Global Peace Index, has forced many children to migrate, either with their custodians or alone, and in turn increased the number of child migrant laborers. There are no statistics though to confirm this assumption.

Sustainable Development Goal No. 8 calls upon states to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor including for children. In combating child labor, it is essential to afford special attention to child migrants who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, and to develop policies tailored to their particular needs and situations. To this end, it is recommended that:

  1. Comprehensive global data is collected on the percentage of child migrants classified as laborers. Having this data would help international organizations and civil society undertake further research and generate evidenced-based tools and concrete measures for addressing child migrant labor; and
  2. Regional organizations and states should recognize the vulnerabilities of displaced children in developing migration policies. The protection of such children in accordance with international law must be prioritized with due attention given to securing the rights of such migrants rather than only border management.

In conclusion, a more accurate breakdown of the number of child labor migrants and understanding of their needs would increase the pressure on states to uphold their international responsibilities and create more effective responses. Each child has an inherent right to live without fear and to be protected from harm. A society that cannot protect its children is one with desolate prospects.

Learn more about the Social Justice Expertise Center (SJEC), working on the application, implementation and enforcement of international labor rights.

Learn more about the Global Governance Reform Initiative, a project analyzing the deficiencies the deficiencies of the current international system and proposing policies to improve governance of cyberspace, oceans and migration.

Further Reading


Irregular Migration and Global Justice

At a roundtable on the subject in December 2013, The Hague Institute convened a group of director-level officials from government, international organizations, and civil…

Completed: Global Governance Reform Initiative

The Global Governance Reform Initiative (GGRI), a collaboration between  The Hague Institute for Global Justice, The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Observer Research Foundation…