Vatican News
A group of unaccompanied child migrants cross the Rio Grande river into Texas, the US. A group of unaccompanied child migrants cross the Rio Grande river into Texas, the US. 

UNICEF: gender shapes experiences of children on the move

A new report by the UN’s Children’s Fund says that more children than ever before live outside their country of birth as migrants or refugees, with boys outnumbering girls.

By Vatican News staff reporter

More people are leaving home because of crises such violence, rights abuse, conflicts and climate-related disasters, or to escape extreme poverty or poor governance that deprives them and their families of the right to a dignified life, opportunities, education and security.  The number of persons living outside their country of birth or citizenship reached a record high of 281 million in 2020 – representing 3.6 per cent of the global population.

More girls and boys than ever are on the move in the world today, with children younger than 18 totalling 35.5 million in 2020.  An estimated 13 million of them, over a third, were refugees and asylum seekers, says a new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund published on Friday. 

Entitled, Uncertain Pathways, the study notes that in 2020, 10 million child refugees were displaced across borders, largely due to conflict and war.  Around 5.1 million were boys and 4.9 million were girls.   Boys outnumbered girls by 1.2 million or 6.7 per cent – the largest difference ever recorded and almost double the relative difference seen 20 years ago.  In 2000, of 23.9 million international child migrants, the data showed 3.6 per cent more boys than girls. The report found that over the course of the year, there were almost 15 million new displacements or 41,000 each day.

Nearly two-thirds of all international migrants in 2020 (including refugees) were born in middle-income countries. Only 13 per cent were born in low-income countries and half of them were refugees or asylum seekers. Most find refuge in a neighbouring country.


The report, Uncertain Pathways, points out that the decision to migrate is rarely straightforward. It often involves an interplay of pressures and incentives, such as the avoidance of risk and rights violations at home and the promise of better schools, new jobs, and family reunification elsewhere. Motivations may be fluid and change once the journey has begun, shifted by opportunities and encounters along the route.  Covid-19 is having a profound impact on these choices as it intensifies vulnerabilities for insecure families, including limiting access to school, employment, health care, and humanitarian services.

A child’s role in the decision to leave and where she or he goes will be intimately tied to age, gender, and the associated gender norms and roles in a community.

Gender influences movement of children

The UNICEF report found that gender plays a pivotal role in a child's decision to leave home and continues to shape their experiences and vulnerabilities throughout their journey.  Today “close to 60 million girls and boys have migrated across borders or been forcibly displaced within their own countries”, said Verena Knaus, UNICEF’s global chief for Migration and Displacement, who was speaking in Geneva at the launch of the report.

She said that gender skews certain migration routes and experiences.  In 2020, nine in ten unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe were boys, more than half of whom came from Afghanistan, Morocco and Syria.  She pointed out that Afghanistan is number one on the list of the top 10 countries of origin – with the largest number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe, mostly boys.

Knaus pointed out that “boys are often expected to assume the role of breadwinner, while girls may migrate as a strategy to delay early marriage or conflict-related sexual violence”.  Girls are more likely to be victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, while boys are often trafficked for forced labour.


The UNICEF report notes that the Middle East and North Africa region is home to the largest number of international child migrants and shows the greatest gender imbalance.  Of some 9 million child migrants living in the Middle East and North Africa in 2020, 54.3 per cent of them were boys.  Western Europe also showed a more pronounced gender imbalance, with boys comprising 52.0 per cent of the 5.6 million child migrants. In most other regions, the numbers of boys and girls were more evenly distributed. Girls outnumbered boys in Eastern and Southern Africa (50.4 per cent) and in West and Central Africa (52.7 per cent).

Geographic ‘blind spots’

UNICEF acknowledges it knows more about the stories of children moving from the Global South to the Global North (e.g., the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia) than about children migrating internally or regionally.  However, girls and boys travelling within their country’s borders or the same region account for most children on the move. 

Data on the gendered dimensions of child migration are sparse and in diverse contexts around the world and patterns of female migration are often missing from the data.

The UNICEF report calls on governments to address these “blind spots'' through greater coordination and investment in gender-specific data, disaggregation and standardization.  It also urges a move away from one-size-fits-all approaches and to prioritize interventions that are tailored to gender-specific risks, needs and drivers of children on the move.  (Source: UNICEF)

28 August 2021, 15:41