Migration and youth: Harnessing opportunities for development

We live in a globalizing world, in constant change. The search for better economic opportunities and for a better lifestyle, on the one hand; and political instability and armed conflicts, violence and discrimination, climate change and natural disasters, on the other, are some of the reasons behind international and internal migration flows – from South to North, and more significantly, across and within countries in the South.

Some 214 million persons worldwide - or 3.1 per cent of the world’s population - are international migrants, while 740 million persons migrate within borders. According to the World Bank, about a third of the migrant flow from all developing countries, are young people between 12 and 24 years of age. This includes millions of children below 18 years who migrate, either together with their parents or on their own.

These numbers are likely to increase in the years ahead, driven by population dynamics, by lack of development and employment opportunities, in particular in rural areas; and also as a result of environmental changes: according to some estimations, by the year 2050 there will be some 200 million ‘climate refugees’.

Given its young and rapidly growing population, Africa will be a particularly affected region. The UN predicts that, in the period between 2010 and 2020, children between 10 and 14 years of age alone will increase by more than 27 million. Given current patterns, many of these children will grow up in rural areas; and as teenagers will want to migrate in search of opportunities elsewhere.

Children migrate as a result of violence – at times, violence in the home or in the school; in other cases fleeing an arranged and forced marriage, persecution for belonging to a minority, or armed conflict. During the migration process, they remain at high risk of violence, abuse and exploitation, including child labour.

When migrating on their own, children are especially vulnerable to exploitation, coercion and deception, a risk that tends to grow when they are very young, or do not speak the language of their destination. Girls are at high risk of trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation.

Evidence from various studies shows that child migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They experience maltreatment by unscrupulous employers; and they suffer isolation, sub-standard working conditions, non-payment of wages, and the threat of being reported to the authorities and deported to their countries of origin.

More often than not, child migrants travel across borders without proper documentation and identification. Undocumented immigrants, both adults and children, are frequently unable to access basic social services, including education and health care, as well as protection services required to fight the forms of violence they may endure and to ensure their recovery and social reintegration.

The arrest, detention or imprisonment of children due to their migrant status, at times placed in inhuman conditions and together with adults, is not infrequent, although contravening the principle of the child's best interest. As called for by the CRC, deprivation of liberty cannot be unlawful or arbitrary, and can only be used as a measure of last resource; in the exceptional cases where it may be justified, it can only be established for the shortest possible period of time.

Despite their growing numbers and the undeniable links between migration, violence and exploitation, child migrants remain largely invisible in debates about migration; and they are also absent from discussions on child protection and child labour. Policy responses are fragmented at best, and largely fail to protect the rights of children in migration and to offer them genuine opportunities for their personal development.

The protection of the rights of children in migration is an ethical and legal imperative!!!

In this process, governments bear a leading responsibility and their action must be framed by the solid human rights normative foundation agreed upon by the international community. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols prohibit discrimination of any kind, and require States to safeguard the rights of all children under their jurisdiction, including their protection from violence and exploitation, whether they are nationals, foreigners or stateless. The ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour provides a practical framework for the protection of children, including in migration, from the most serious forms of exploitation.

For its part, the Roadmap for achieving the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, adopted in The Hague in 2010, calls on Governments to “consider ways to address the potential vulnerability of children to, in particular, the worst forms of child labour in the context of migratory flows’.

The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants underlined the obligation of States ‘to ensure the protection of all children in all stages of the migration process’.

These legal instruments and political declarations establish a solid basis to prevent and address all forms of violence against children; and they provide a strategic opportunity to integrate the protection of children from violence as a central component of the national policy agenda, making sure that the best interest of children is given systematic and primary attention.

When we look ahead and reflect on the approach needed to create a protective environment for children in migration, it is critical to recognize one key point: many children and young people voluntarily choose to leave, often rural areas, in the hope of gaining better opportunities elsewhere. While there are many risks in the migration process, migration can also offer better prospects for development, education and, when they are old enough, for access to employment.

Our aim cannot be to stop voluntary migration, but rather to provide a safe framework that prevents violence and exploitation, including child labour; and helps children make informed decisions.

To achieve this aim there are a number of principles we should keep in mind:

All children, including those in migration, are entitled to the respect of their fundamental rights. In all decisions, the best interests of the child need to be given a primary consideration. This is not a question of favour; it is a legal obligation!

The case of each and every child is unique; it needs to be considered in the light of its specific circumstances and taking into account the age and special needs of the child. Moreover, it needs to be informed by the views, perspectives and experience of the child.

In shaping migration laws, policies and regulations, it is crucial to be guided by core international human rights standards, in particular the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, the ILO Conventions No 138 on the Minimum Age for Employment and No 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, as well as the Palermo Protocols on Human Trafficking and the Smuggling of Migrants.

But one major challenge remains – the lack of data and research on children in migration, which in turn leads to the absence of children from the migration debate. As recognised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, the lack of statistical information about children in the migratory process compromises the development of legislation, policies and programmes, as well as of budgets for the protection of children’s rights in this context.

Lastly, whether migration flows are within or across borders, international cooperation is crucial, both to prevent risky migration and to safeguard the rights of children on the move, and also to help develop a well-coordinated governance response between and across countries.

Marta Santos Pais

New York, 17 May 2011