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Regional themes > Migration Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Save the Children

Children on the move:
Protecting unaccompanied migrant children in South Africa and the region

Save the Children (UK)


SARPN acknowledges Save the Children UK as a source of this document:
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Executive summary

This report is based on a number of key studies under taken by Save the Children (SC) from 2003 to the present day in the southern African region. The report challenges the common understanding that child migration entails trafficking and refugee movement, and demonstrates that children often cross borders unaccompanied, as a survival strategy.

The report focuses on South Africa and its response to unaccompanied migrant children (UMC). This is ostensibly owing to the fact that South Africa is a popular destination country and therefore should provide more comprehensive support to UMC in order to ensure their protection.

Central to the recommendations made in this report are the following understandings:

  • Further research into UMC is required. It is difficult for policy-makers and programmers to build effective strategies and action plans without sufficient evidence.

  • Advocacy around UMC is required in order to ensure that key issues addressing their plight are included in international, regional and national level agendas, and are not confined to child trafficking contexts.

  • Children in several countries in southern Africa are migrating because of chronic poverty and the death of parents and caregivers, in part from HIV and Aids. These factors are often exacerbated by droughts and political instability.

  • We need to ensure that children are able to participate in the debates, policy-making and planning that affect them. This is necessary in order for effective strategies and interventions to protect UMC to be developed.
The following key aspects of child migration are identified and discussed, and recommendations based on these are given:

  • Defining an unaccompanied migrant child: The report seeks to develop a definition of an unaccompanied migrant child that can guide policy, programming and advocacy while remaining flexible and inclusive. It also distinguishes UMC from children who have been trafficked.

  • Avoiding the term ‘illegal’: The report advises the avoidance of the use of terms that incorrectly label UMC or contribute to discrimination or xenophobia. Children should be referred to as ‘undocumented’ rather than ‘illegal’, in conjunction with existing international, regional and national conventions, policies and legislation, which work to ensure that migrant children are not criminalised. More generally, an approach centring around ensuring that children’s rights are not abused is emphasised.

  • Examining the push-pull factors leading to migration: Primary push-pull factors, which play a significant role in a child’s decision to migrate, are examined. In terms of the push factors, children repeatedly named poverty, hunger, lack of education and the death of a parent or caregiver as the reasons for their decision to migrate. The pull factors included stronger currencies, work opportunities, the possibility of an education, and extended family and other networks. The point is made that while war and conflict may play a part in child migration, these circumstances do not provide the only reason for this type of migration. Children in South Africa mostly wanted to stay despite the hardships they experienced.

  • Realising that children’s levels of autonomy when migrating can differ: While the report distances itself from debates around trafficking, it acknowledges that children can migrate as a result of a wide range of decisions. At times, families pressurise children to seek work across the border, and the children will comply for various reasons, including a strong desire to fulfil their familial duty.

  • Being aware of children’s extreme vulnerability: Children become even more vulnerable when they migrate, particularly at the actual border crossing and also on their arrival in the host country. These children become prey to abuse, violence and exploitation, mainly owing to their young age and undocumented status in the host country. The authorities’ limited understanding of existing policies and procedures, the lack of appropriate guidelines for service providers dealing with migrant children or the xenophobic attitudes towards foreign children contribute to this vulnerability.

  • Linking education and work: A link is formed between children’s loss of education and need to work, and the resulting need is examined for more educational opportunities for UMC to be developed. Moreover, currently there is much evidence that children are routinely exploited by employees who make false promises of payment for work done. Additional policies to ensure that children are indeed paid the wages they earn, even if they have been hired illegally, are discussed.

  • Examining the legislation and policies: This section of the report examines the legislations and other frameworks currently in place to protect migrant children, especially in South Africa. In this country, sufficient policies to protect these children are in place, but they seem infrequently applied because of xenophobia, lack of awareness or lack of capacity.
The report concludes that the region needs to take a more proactive role in ensuring that children who migrate are better protected. This will involve tightening up policies and legislations at a regional level to include children, persuading States to develop clear policies and procedures for UMC, where necessary, and ensuring that existing legal and policy frameworks are implemented.

The report recommends more generally that cross-border and other collaborative initiatives be suppor ted, and that preventative measures as well as responses from the host country need to be sought. These responses should seek to target all children, not just migrant children, in an effort to avoid discrimination, xenophobia, and the development of parallel interventions that target migrants alone.

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