Protecting children on the move

Refugee children washing in pond
Refugee children washing in pond

A refugee camp is not the easiest place to conduct field research, but when you are exploring how best to protect children during their migration journey, that is where the need is greatest.

The now-iconic image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015 sparked a public outcry and turned the world’s attention to Europe’s forced migration dilemmas involving children.

Currently, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from home – about half of those are children.

Dr Bina D’Costa joined UNICEF at the height of the Syrian refugee emergency in Europe. She has recently returned to ANU after spending three years leading the children and migration research program at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.

On the ground, in the front line

Her work there involved some harrowing times in the front line, doing humanitarian work on the ground in refugee camps in Somaliland, in Bangladesh during the Rohingya emergency and in many other refugee emergency locations including Jordan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Kenya, Niger and Libya.

D’Costa has worked closely with humanitarian and advocacy agencies to respond to the protection risks that young people experience in the migration pathway: sexual and gender-based violence, child/early marriage, early pregnancies, domestic violence, exploitative/forced labour, and disrupted education and employment pathways.

“These are the kinds of horrific ordeals that are particularly faced by children ‘on the move’, unaccompanied and separated children, and those left behind or stateless,” she says.

The journeys that displaced people and migrants make are replete with stories of conflict, persecution, economic hardship and trauma. Data from UN agencies shows we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. Currently, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from home – about half of those are children.

A very large number of displaced children living close to but outside camps and elsewhere are undocumented.

UNICEF’s program responses and policies were directly informed by evidence from D’Costa’s team’s research into children on the move. For example, in the Horn of Africa where children were being trafficked, their research found there was often no paperwork to prove a child’s country of origin.

The UNICEF program response, informed by this research, was to ensure better birth registration processes, the wider use of birth certificates and a central database where the data is shared. “This enabled agencies to better track where children are moving from, and to, across multiple countries,” D’Costa says.

Children cross borders for different reasons and in varying circumstances, both voluntary and involuntary.

Almost without exception, all child refugees experience severe stress and anxiety.

Historically, receiving, transit and origin countries have been more tolerant of the migration of children and youth. Some have an exploitative interest in child migrants who are valued for their labour, while others display more genuine compassion and recognise the international community must commit to protecting young people on migration pathways.

Essentially, states think about border security, but humans also need protection and security.

“Protection of borders and protection of young people are not mutually exclusive,” D’Costa says.

“Good research tells us how we can connect the protection of states with protection of people, in particular children who may not be citizens or who may be citizens of other countries.”

D’Costa’s main research question is: ‘How can we better protect and support children in their migration pathway?’

“Working at UNICEF was the best place to explore that question and have the results of my research make the most significant impact,” she says. “I could feed my research findings directly back into UNICEF’s program responses, which would be implemented in the field as our work progressed.”

For example, in the Rohingya emergency in Bangladesh, as part of the UNICEF emergency team D’Costa worked with children and young girls who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Using her research findings, she developed program guidance notes for on-the-ground implementation and advocacy strategies with religious leaders to prevent domestic violence and early/forced marriages. She also worked with the security sector to develop anti-trafficking campaigns.

Her team’s research in Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden found that, while the Nordic countries have some of the best laws and regulations in place, there are still implementation gaps which increase protection risks for child refugees. “Child protection agencies are frequently ignored or given less importance when migration agencies deal with asylum-seeking children,” she says.

In many instances, immigration officers, as opposed to trained child protection personnel, are tasked to make critical decisions and coordinate urgent care for children. This finding led to the recommendation that child protection agencies need to be at the very centre of any decision-making, when asylum-seeking children’s applications are being considered.

“Child protection agencies must work alongside the immigration and border protection agencies, as they bring a unique insight to the assessment process – an understanding of the child’s needs and the profound trauma and pain that each child carries with them,” D’Costa says.


As well as designing improved program responses for UNICEF, D’Costa’s work involves advocacy to shape and influence the global narrative and research priorities around migration and forced displacement of children.

She says it is important to understand mobility pathways because they deeply impact on a child’s development and, therefore, on the future of our world. “Young people are our hope, so our main goal is to nurture and protect these young migrants’ and refugees’ aspirations for a better future. Good research tells us how to do that better.”

Evidence-based research can persuade international, regional and state actors that the migration of children is a humanitarian issue and not just a political issue.

“Research can dispel myths and anxieties surrounding young people – particularly those involving children whose experiences have been systematically sidelined or purposely excluded from the protection agenda – and can lead to the development of effective protection strategies,” D’Costa says.

Her research can be used to influence the public and policy debate around migration and forced displacement, which is precisely what she plans to do now that she has returned to ANU.

*Associate Professor Bina D’Costa is Deputy Director of Education at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU, and a Senior Fellow in their Department of International Relations.

This article originally appeared in ANU Reporter - May 2019