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‘What works’ to protect children on the move: five insights from across the globe

Written by Rachel Marcus, Carmen Leon-Himmelstine


This is the first of a two-part series on ‘children on the move’. Explore part-two in January, which will detail current gaps in evidence, solutions, and the role better evidence can play in improving the protection of children on the move.

An estimated 50 million children worldwide are currently ‘on the move’ as refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced, migrants or returnees. Some children have been separated from their parents under ‘zero tolerance’ policies to deter illegal crossings. Others face challenges at their destination such as severe poverty, insecure housing, language barriers, access to healthcare, education or navigation of the asylum process, which put them at increased risk of violence, exploitation and abuse.

In response to this huge challenge, a group of UN agencies commissioned ODI to undertake a ‘rapid review’ of evidence on children on the move, drilling down on what works to protect children across the globe, and where potential solutions lie.

A diverse set of studies

The kinds of risks children face vary hugely, reflecting differences in context, age, gender, socio-economic background, and policy environment, to name a few factors.

The studies we analysed similarly examined varied initiatives across the world (with half in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and a quarter in high-income countries). They also focused on diverse groups of children: child refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, children moving with families, children who were unaccompanied or separated, and children displaced by conflict, environmental disasters or economic stress.

The majority of initiatives (77/89) involved direct activities with children and families, focusing on violence prevention, mental health and psychosocial support, and alternative care for unaccompanied and separated children. A few promoted knowledge of safe migration, to enable family reunification, or to prevent specific child protection violations, such as child trafficking. Finally, a third of programmes focused on policy reform and strengthening child protection systems.

Despite this diversity, we’ve distilled five key insights from the 89 studies in our review that can help inform more effective policies and practices for children on the move.

Five key insights

1. Work with stakeholders at different levels and across sectors to enhance impact.

For example, an International Labour Organization project to eradicate the worst forms of child labour in Thailand was able to influence national policy, enhance cross-border cooperation on child trafficking and migration, and strengthen support systems and networks for migrant child workers.

The linkages between national policy, stronger regional labour inspection systems and local action helped ensure that policies and systems responded more effectively to the specific challenges migrant child workers faced.

2. Tailor training to issues faced by specific role-holders.

Many initiatives offered training to police, social workers and border officials. For example, the United Nations joint project for protecting migrant children from trafficking and exploitation in Zambia shifted border officials’ attitudes from criminalising forms of migration to protecting vulnerable children.

The most effective initiatives took place over many months and involved continued support and mentoring. They worked with managers with decision-making authority to spearhead new ways of working, as well as front-line staff.

Several studies highlighted the importance of nesting training within broader system reforms that increased budgets and allowed implementation of new practices.

3. Social and behaviour change communication initiatives have good potential to help prevent maltreatment of children.

These were largely effective in reducing children’s experiences of violence (16 studies found reductions while six reported no change).

Initiatives that promoted safe migration among young people in communities of origin and through mass media campaigns led to increased knowledge of risks and safer ways to migrate.

Employing facilitators skilled in working with people with low literacy and making use of easy-to-understand materials was also important, as in a recent CARE programme that increased of awareness of gender-based violence support services among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda.

4. Economic-strengthening interventions such as cash transfers, skills training and entrepreneurship programmes had mixed effects on child protection.

More studies found a reduction in child labour with cash transfers than those that did not (with larger transfers over longer periods more likely to have an effect).

We found little evidence that skills training and entrepreneurship programmes contributed to reductions in child labour, marriage, trafficking or unsafe migration. They were not designed or able to address drivers such as high levels of poverty or violence.

5. Actively involve young people in design and delivery of initiatives.

Results appear promising through youth involvement as facilitators of non-formal education and communication programmes, and as trusted community members who could refer children to specialised services.

In Honduras (UNICEF) and Egypt (IOM), interventions with youth volunteers provided information to children and youths in communities with high migration rates, increasing the number of young people making informed decisions about whether or not to migrate.

Final reflections

Overall, we found that most initiatives had some positive outcomes, though many failed to affect change. Typically, initiatives that limited children’s full integration into the host society, or took place where levels of xenophobia or poverty were particularly high, were least effective.

Our review suggests that programmes could be strengthened by greater integration with other relevant services, and by longer, better-funded initiatives (usually lasting more than three years).

Equally, as forced migration and displacement continue to increase worldwide, stronger policies that protect children on the move will require building political will to address issues that are often ‘off the radar’.

See part-two of this series on children on the move in January, which will explore gaps in evidence, solutions and how better evidence can improve the protection of children on the move.