Child and young migrants
Collecting and disaggregating migration data by age is essential for analysing the age dynamics of migrant populations. Child and young migrants are at risk of abuse, trafficking and exploitation, especially if they travel alone and through irregular migration pathways. For child migrants, data disaggregated by age, sex and information on whether children are accompanied by a parent, family member, guardian, sponsor, or not, are particularly important to determine potential levels of vulnerability and protection needs during transit and on arrival. There are several types of data sources that disaggregate migrant stocks and flows by age, although none can offer precise numbers or a full global picture.
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For statistical purposes, the United Nations defines youth as “those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years, without prejudice to other definitions by Member States.” Based on the UN definition of youth, the assumption would be that only persons under the age of 15 are children. However, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as a “human being below the age of 18.” This definition was used so that the Convention can provide protection and rights to as broad an age-group as possible, but from a data perspective, it leads to an overlap since persons between the ages of 15 and 18 years are counted as both children and youth.
It is important to note that definitions of childhood have changed over time and often do not match what was historically seen as childhood even within the same country. Additionally, just as the concepts of “childhood” and “adulthood” vary across cultures, the definitions and categories used by governments which collect information at border entry and exit points and during the asylum process also vary. For instance, in Europe, government policy documents interchangeably use different terminology, including “child”, “minor”, “unaccompanied child”, “unaccompanied minor” and “unaccompanied migrant minor”. Data on child migrants may be disaggregated into those who are accompanied, such as those who travel with their family members or guardians, and those who travel alone, either because they are unaccompanied or because they have been separated from their family or guardian during their journey. Some data sources also have a category for those who are “accompanied-non-accompanied”, which means they are traveling with an adult, but the relationship with the adult is uncertain or defined by child marriage.
According to United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) data, the estimated number of people aged 19 or under living in a country other than the one where they were born in rose from 29 million in 1990 to 40.9 million in 2020. In 2020, child migrants (aged 19 years and under) accounted for 14.6 per cent of the total migrant population and 1.6 per cent among children globally. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates based on UN DESA data, but using under 18 years of age as criteria, the number of child migrants remained stable around 24 million between 1990 and 2000, and steadily rose to 27 million in 2010 and 33 million in 2019. In 2019, child migrants accounted for 12 per cent of the total migrant population (UNICEF, 2020). The estimated number of young migrants (aged 15 to 24) also rose from 22.1 million in 1990 to 31.7 million in 2020. In 2020, young migrants accounted for 11.3 per cent of the total migrant population and 2.6 per cent among youth globally (UN DESA, 2020).
The proportion and number of child and young migrants vary by region. As of 2020, the share of young migrants in their respective migrant populations is higher in low and middle-income countries than in high-income countries. Since UN DESA started publishing its international migrant stock estimates in 1990, Africa has hosted the highest proportion of child migrants (aged 19 and under) as well as young migrants. From 1990 to 2020, the proportion of migrant children in Europe and Oceania had slightly increased and their share in Latin America and the Caribbean had also increased, while it stayed stable in Africa, Asia and Northern America. As a percentage of the total migrant stock, young migrants have steadily decreased in all regions except Oceania, where it increased, and Latin America and Caribbean, where it stayed stable. The proportion of both child migrants and young migrants in Oceania’s migrant stock increased during this period.
In recent years, the number of children migrating unaccompanied by guardians has increased. In 2015-2016, there were five times as many children estimated to be migrating alone than in 2010-2011 (UNICEF, 2017b). The number of unaccompanied and separated children applying for asylum in countries other than in the European Union increased from 4,000 in 2010 to 19,000 in 2015 (UNICEF, 2017b).1
According to Eurostat, the number of unaccompanied minors among asylum seekers in Europe increased from 10,610 in 2010 to 95,205 in 2015, and then decreased to 17,890 in 2019.2
The increase between 2010 and 2015 can be partly attributed to the overall rise in the number of asylum seekers on the continent in those years. Eight per cent of all arrivals across the Mediterranean to Italy in 2015 were unaccompanied children, which climbed to 14 per cent in 2016. An estimated 90 per cent of all children who crossed the Mediterranean in 2016 were unaccompanied (UNICEF, 2017a). Between 2014 and 2020, at least 2,300 children died or went missing during their migration journey (IOM, 2020).
On the United States (US)-Mexico border, the US Border Patrol (USBP) apprehended nearly 69,000 unaccompanied children in 2014, 40,000 in 2015 and 60,000 in 2016. In 2016, 61 per cent of apprehended unaccompanied minors in that year were from El Salvador and Guatemala (USBP, 2016).
Several sources provide data on child and young migrants by disaggregating data on migrant stocks and flows by age. Data on migrant stocks by age are collected or consolidated at the global, regional and national levels. Data on migrant flows by age come from sources ranging from administrative to expert reports.
Data collection at the global and regional levels
Migrant stocks by age
UN DESA has produced estimates of international migrant stocks based on national census data every five years since 1990, and biannually since 2013, with the most recent year being 2020. Data on international migrant stocks are available for all regions, countries and areas of the world and are disaggregated by age and sex. UN DESA’s migration statistics include the age category of young migrants (19 and younger). The data on child and young migrants are broken down into four age subcategories: 0-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-19 and 20-24 years. These subcategories enable producers of statistics to monitor progress and inform policy makers on the capacities and vulnerabilities of each of the aforementioned age subcategories.
However, it is difficult to identify the precise number of “children” (using the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) definition of under 18 years) in migrant stocks, as the age group 15-19 is one subcategory in the dataset. Based on UN DESA’s figures, other available migrant data, and expert opinion, UNICEF provides estimates of the number of child migrants in migrant stocks that fit the CRC definition.
Every four years since 2001, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published consolidated data on migrant stocks in OECD countries as well as in some non-OECD countries. The data on stocks in OECD countries are generally disaggregated into five-year age groups (including 15-19 and 20-24 years) and the data on stocks in non-OECD countries are recorded in three age groups (15-24 years, 25-64 years and over 65 years). However, people aged 15 years old are missing for Spain, the United States of America and Sweden in these datasets because of how their respective national data are collected. The most recent public datasets are from 2011.
Migrant flows by age
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publishes data on migrant arrivals by group (men, women, children and unaccompanied children) and collected from the national authorities of Greece, Italy and Spain. UNHCR also publishes data on the number of “people of concern” and/or registered refugees by age and/or the number of children for a number of countries or “situations”, including in the Syrian Arab Republic, the Thailand-Myanmar border, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Data by age on migrants who go through the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s voluntary return programs back to their home countries are released by IOM in its annual report, as well as by some countries, including Mexico.
Since 2009, Eurostat has published the annual number of immigrants who arrived in each member state by age, as well as pending asylum cases, asylum decisions made, and cases that have been withdrawn, divided into five age categories, including less than 14 years, from 14 to 17 years, less than 18 years, and from 18 to 34 years old. The number of unaccompanied minors is also included in these data.
The European Commission’s Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography provides an interactive online map consolidating Eurostat data on asylum applications, decisions, residence permits and UNHCR’s data on populations of concern and arrivals to Europe disaggregated by age.
National administrative sources
Several countries provide data on international migrant stocks and flows by different age categories. For example, Canada publishes monthly data on asylum claims in each province in six age categories, including 0-14 and 15-29 years old. The US provides statistics on the numbers granted refugee status at the national level each year and the number of “refugee arrivals”, divided by sex, marital status and 16 age categories, including 1-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-19 and 20-24 years old. Mexico publishes data on the number of asylum applications made by unaccompanied minors disaggregated by sex and country of origin. Argentina also publishes annual data on asylum applications, as well as asylum decisions, divided by sex and five age groups, including 0-4, 5-11 and 12-17 years old.
Some countries also publish data on people under the age of 18 held in immigration detention. Canada publishes the number of minors who spent time in detention at the national level by year. In its annual migration report, Mexico publishes data on child migrants apprehended and detained by the state, by age categories 0-11 and 12-17 years old, and how many were accompanied and unaccompanied. The United Kingdom provides a summary number of how many children were in immigration detention annually.
Since 2015, IOM has conducted surveys of refugees and migrants through its Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), gathering information about migrants’ demographic details (including age and/or number of children), as well as their experiences of abuse, exploitation and trafficking. DTM collects data in many countries and regions, depending on the size and needs of populations on the move. Additionally, the Mixed Migration Centre's Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative (4Mi) interviews migrants to collect and analyse data on mixed migration flows in selected countries in Asia, East Africa, Europe, North Africa, West Africa and South America. Summaries of the results include the number of survey participants who were aged under 18.
UNICEF produces monthly “Situation Reports”, which include the number of migrant children who receive services from UNICEF and/or are in situations of displacement. UNICEF reports on risks faced by migrant children using both primary and secondary quantitative and qualitative data sources. Wherever possible, the dataset compiled by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project includes information on the age of migrants who die or go missing during migration. However, due to the difficulties of collecting information on missing migrants (for less than 30 per cent of recorded incidents between 2014 and 2018 have information on age), these numbers are a gross underestimate of the true number of children and youth who die during migration.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
Migration data disaggregated by age can inform policymakers of the different protection and integration needs of migrants. However, realities on the ground make data collection and analysis by age, specifically on those aged under 18, extremely challenging.
Data collection challenges include:
Incomplete, unreliable or duplicated data: Unaccompanied children who get separated from their guardians or lose them during their journeys may go undetected, avoid being registered by authorities, or claim to be older than 18 or accompanied by a guardian, so that they can continue their journeys and not be taken into custody. Others may not know how old they are or claim to be under 18 years old so that they can take advantage of the rights and privileges of being a child, such as shelter and schooling (Separated Children in Europe Programme).
There may also be cases of children who register for asylum in more than one country, who do not register for asylum at all, or who claim international protection but have not arrived by sea. For instance, Germany reported that more than 42,000 unaccompanied and separated children entered the country in 2015, but only 14,439 claimed asylum (Tangermann and Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik, 2018).
Differing definitions for age categories: The comparison of data on stocks and flows of migrant children and other age groups is difficult because countries collect data on age using different definitions and categories.4
Differing criteria for recording data: Countries differ in how they record data for the same categories. For instance, some European Union Member States record those who claim to be unaccompanied children in the statistics, whereas others only count those recognized as such following an age assessment by an authority (Humphries and Sigona, 2016).
Exclusion of children’s agency over their lives: Reports of numbers of “missing refugee children” can be informed by the data/evidence of the dangers that children face as migrants, especially when they are unaccompanied or separated. However, challenges in data collection and the agency of children should also be considered when assessing claims of missing children. For instance, a child may leave a shelter on their own accord to continue their migration journey (Humphries and Sigona, 2016).
Extra care required when handling data on child migrants: Migration data by age should be collected and processed in accordance with legal instruments on data protection to ensure privacy, dignity and well-being of migrants. Data controllers need to anticipate adverse consequences especially while processing data relating to children (IOM, 2010).
- 1These data are for 37 to 53 countries.
- 2The 32 countries include European Union countries and the four countries of the European Free Trade Association. Data include first-time applicants only.
- 3Data are for age 17 or under and based on fiscal year.
- 4Where countries do not use these same age intervals to report migrant stocks, UN DESA must employ demographic techniques to make estimates that fit their categories.