MARJORIE NIGAR EDGUER
Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA
In immigration, “unaccompanied minors” refers to a diverse population of migrant children who are noncitizens, under the age of adult legal status in their receiving country, and are not with a legally responsible adult. Unaccompanied minors may not have been seen as minors in their sending countries – they may have had adult status there. There are four general categories of unaccompanied minors: (1) refugees, (2) solo migrants, (3) those separated from family following migration, (4) trafficking victims. Regardless of the category to which they belong, unaccompanied minors have often overcome many hardships prior to their arrival in a new country. They may have fled persecution, human rights abuses, war, and other violence. Because unaccompanied minors do not have adult legal status, there are specific concerns since they are a very vulnerable population.
Historically, unaccompanied minors have been refugees who arrived in their new countries through planned resettlement programs. Many unaccompanied minors were relocated to new countries during and following World War II. Since then the practice has continued, usually where there is war or political unrest. For example, in the 1980s, unaccompanied refugee minors came from Southeast Asian countries to the United States, with their relocation supported by the US government and private aid groups. When a government identifies refugee children overseas and selects them for resettlement, there is a screening process and services are provided to help with the transition. In the United States, the government agency in charge of unaccompanied refugee minors is the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which works closely with two organizations, the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service (LIRS) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Other countries usually have similar arrangements to address the situations of unaccompanied refugee minors who are identified prior to migration. These unaccompanied minors who are participants in organized refugee programs will have access to support for long-term care: foster homes and other housing opportunities, food, clothing, medical care, education, language training, counseling, and other forms of support and necessities. Although these forms of support may be officially available to unaccompanied refugee minors, they are not always easy for the minors to access, and their availability is not uniform. The number of such refugees throughout the world has increased dramatically in recent years, and continues to grow; at least half of the world's refugees are estimated to be children below the age of 18.
Another group of unaccompanied minors are individual children who have traveled to a new country on their own to join family members who are already there, to escape the problems in their home country, or to take advantage of perceived economic opportunities. Children who are refugees but arrive without the support of an organized refugee program will find it difficult to navigate the legal systems surrounding asylum programs, and they will often lack the documentation to support their claims of refugee status. Children who are seeking to join family members who are already in the new country may be stopped at the international border, and detained and deported at that point. Even if they are able to cross the border successfully, they may not be able to navigate in the new country or find their family members. Some children believe that there are economic opportunities that will allow them to provide for their family, only to discover that the opportunities are nonexistent or are unavailable to them as minors. They may fall prey to criminals after they arrive.
Children may become unaccompanied minors following immigration. This usually occurs due to some form of separation from their family. If a family has entered the country without documentation, then some family members may be more vulnerable to detention, separation, and deportation. Depending on national laws regarding citizenship, children may be considered citizens while their parents are considered illegal immigrants, which means that children may be able to legally stay in the country but without their parents. If children are separated from their parents when their parents are detained or deported, they may or may not have other external supports in the community. Children are vulnerable following their parents' detention or deportation and may become homeless or victims of exploitation by adults or older children. Children have limited ability to access resources in the community. If children are themselves detained or processed for deportation, they are often separated from their family and may be held in juvenile facilities with children who have committed a variety of violent crimes, or even in adult criminal facilities. Children may be held for extended periods of time – months or years – in detention facilities.
Unaccompanied minors may be children who were trafficked and brought to a new country by adults who were intending to exploit them. Children are trafficked for profit all around the world, although it may take different forms in different places. International traffickers will bring a child into a country, and the child may subsequently escape or be abandoned by the trafficker, becoming an unaccompanied minor. Traffickers may lie to families about the opportunity that is being given to the child and children may be forced or coerced into accompanying the trafficker. Children who are trafficked may be sexually exploited or used in pornography; forced to labor in homes, farms or factories; or forced to beg. They are physically confined, starved, threatened, beaten, and abused. It is difficult to estimate the number Page 1452 | Top of Articleof children who are trafficked. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has protection guidelines regarding trafficking. The guidelines provide nations with policy recommendations for addressing these situations.
How countries deal with unaccompanied minors varies widely – some countries have specific policies regarding the disposition of unaccompanied minors that are based on immigration status; other countries uniformly detain all unaccompanied minors in jail-like facilities; other countries place them in foster homes following the same practices that would be applied for native children. The legal claims of unaccompanied minors usually follow the same guidelines that are followed for anyone seeking to immigrate. Unaccompanied minors may or may not be able to adequately use any legal counsel provided for them – they usually will not have any documentation to substantiate their identity, any claims for asylum, or their history. Language barriers can also limit unaccompanied minors' abilities to advocate for themselves or use the services available to them. United Nations policy stresses that it is important in making decisions regarding unaccompanied minors to keep the best interests of the child in mind. “No matter their status, children must be treated as children first and their best interests professionally identified and respected” (UNHCR 2008 ).
Amnesty International. Retrieved June 15, 2011, from www.amnesty.org
Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. Unaccompanied minors project. Retrieved November 28, 2010, from http:www.immigrantchildren.org
UN Refugee Agency. Retrieved June 15, 2011, from http://www.unhcr.org/
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2001). “Children.” Refugees Magazine. Retrieved June 15, 2011, from http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=home&cid=49aea93ae2&scid=49aea93a6e&comid=4b66b4656&skip=0&querysi=children&searchin=title&display=10&sort=date
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2008). Refugee protection and human trafficking: selected legal reference materials (1st ed.). Retrieved June 15, 2011, from http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/trxis/vtx/search?page=search&query=trafficking&x=0&y=0