In the spirit of Human Rights Day and in light of the treatment of unaccompanied and separated minor immigrants around the world, we share an excerpt by Jacqueline Bhabha from Humanitarianism and Mass Migration: Confronting the World Crisis edited by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco.


A substantial proportion of children forced into distress migration travel alone (“unaccompanied”) or without their parents or customary caregivers (“separated”)—a particularly frightening and dangerous set of circumstances. The trauma of loss that accompanies departure from home and familiar surroundings is compounded by the insecurities and hazards associated with travel, isolation, and exploitability. In 2015, 88,300 asylum-seekers applying for protection in the European Union (EU) were considered unaccompanied minors, and many more probably were under eighteen but were mired in age dispute procedures.

The protection deficits associated with these large youthful population movements are dramatic. The multiple state agencies charged with managing migration and refugee flows lack the training and protocols, let alone resources, for safely handling the needs of children; their obligation to ensure that the child’s best interests are a primary consideration is largely ignored. At the same time, domestic agencies charged with ensuring child welfare have yet to mainstream within their protection mandates the needs of migrant and refugee children.

In the United States thousands of children are incarcerated with their parents in harsh, punitive circumstances every year simply because they cannot demonstrate a regular immigration status, despite a broad international consensus opposing the detention of children for immigration reasons. In Mexico, the United States’ de facto immigration buffer zone, detention of child migrants is even more oppressive and pervasive. Severe overcrowding in primitive facilities affects not only children traveling with their parents (as in the United States) but also unaccompanied or separated children simply because of their immigration status.

Other prosperous regions also evidence severe and enduring protection deficits vis-à-vis child migrants. In the EU, which is often considered the leader in rights enforcement for vulnerable minorities, including migrants, child migrants still routinely lack access to effective legal representation and guardianship, to nurturing care and medical attention, and to vigorous policies of social inclusion. The situation in Greece is calamitous, with reports of asylum-seeking children begging or otherwise being exploited on the streets of Athens and accounts of riots within the closed camps as a matter of routine.

In Australia, draconian exclusion policies have relegated thousands of children to situations of indefinite detention and containment on remote island territories, contributing to despair and mental illness of dramatic proportions.


Learn more about Humanitarianism and Mass Migration, Suarez-Orozco’s commitment to immigrants sharing their stories via the Re-Imagining Migration program at UCLA, and Bhabha’s thoughts on the damage family separation inflicts on children.

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