I spend countless hours each week with children as a teacher’s assistant, tutor, and babysitter, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how impressionable kids are. Watching them grow, I love getting to see how each of their different environments molds them into individuals. They seem to absorb everything around them, from adults' responses to their actions, to the way their older siblings act, to what their peers seem to value. But this impressionability has also shown me the potential for harm that childhood environments carry.
In 2016, 1 in 200 children in the world was a refugee. In 2018, 36.1 million children were international migrants, and about half of the refugees that year were children. For migrating and refugee children, childhood is not the carefree time of safety and play that many of us remember. Aside from facing the emotional disruption of abruptly having to leave home and school, migrating children are vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and human trafficking. Harsh border enforcement policies, which are becoming more common in many countries, often leave children in states of “limbo,” increasing their risk for exploitation, as well as anxiety and self-harm. These risks are especially high for children who are unaccompanied, the numbers of whom have also increased.
Aside from these risks, children migrating face the harms of falling behind in school, making eventual readjustment into school systems especially difficult. Studies show that children who are immigrants are generally outperformed in school by their peers, and missing out on critical school years is a contributing factor. Migration also means lack of reliable medical care. Any number of health issues can thus go unnoticed and untreated.
Many governments work to provide resources to the children migrating within their countries, but this support often falls short. And, as Unicef points out, children in countries that are not parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention "face limits on the protections and services they can receive." According to United Nations Refugee Agency, as of 2016, more than half of the 6 million school-aged children under its mandate were out of school, just one striking example of this gap in support that needs to be filled.
The needs of these children can’t wait. Their environments are harmful to their development and impact them in the long term: According to Unicef, “The deprivations and harm children experience during dangerous journeys shake the foundations of their physical, emotional and intellectual development.” This kind of developmental disruption impedes learning and dramatically limits children’s future opportunities.
Children need to come first. Childhood is too important to be disrupted. We need to ensure that migrant children receive education, that their families are kept together, that they are not held in detention centers, that their physical and mental health needs are met, and that they are ultimately settled into safe home and school environments. We can’t allow children’s futures to end before they’ve even begun.
Luckily, organizations like Unicef and Save the Children are currently working tirelessly to promote child migrants’ rights and spread awareness about child migrant issues globally. Their work is more important than ever given the impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged children, and especially migrant children. Please consider supporting these and similar organizations. The futures of so many depend on them.