Disaggregating migration data by age is essential for analyzing age dynamics of migrant populations. For child migrants, data disaggregated by age, gender 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. Child migrants are at risk of abuse, trafficking and exploitation, especially if they travel alone and through irregular migration pathways. 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.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as a “human being below the age of 18”. However, definitions and categories used by governments which collect information at border entry points and during the asylum process vary, just as the concept of “childhood” and “adulthood” varies across cultures.
For instance, in Europe, government policy documents 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 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 the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the estimated number of people aged 19 or under living in a country other than the one where they were born rose from 30 million in 1990 to 36 million in 2017. This was an increase of 21 per cent, while the total number of people (of all ages) living outside the country of their birth increased by 63.4 per cent and the total global population increased by 39.6 per cent during the same period.
The proportion and number of migrant children vary by region. Since UN DESA started publishing data in 1990, Africa has hosted the highest proportion of migrants 19 years and younger (29 per cent of the total migrant stock in 2017. From 1990 to 2017 the proportion of migrant children in Latin America and the Caribbean has slightly increased, while it has continued to decrease in Europe and Asia. The proportion of migrant children in Oceania’s migrant stock has stayed relatively stable during this period. The region with the highest number of migrant children since 1990 has been Asia (with 14.4 million across the region in 2017) as the chart below shows.
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
This increase 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. In that year, unaccompanied children accounted for 9 out of 10 people who arrived irregularly to Italy (UNICEF, 2017a).
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).3
Several sources provide data on migrant children 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.
Migrant stocks by age:
Data collection at the global and regional levels
UN DESA has consolidated national-level data on international migrant stock for every five years since 1990, with the most recent year being 2017. Data on international migrant stock are available for all regions, countries and areas of the world and disaggregated by age and sex. UN DESA’s migration statistics include the age category of young migrants (19 and younger). Data in the young migrants age category are broken down by four age subcategories: 0-4 (early childhood), 5-9 (late childhood), 10-4 (adolescents) and 15-19 (middle and late adolescents). These subcategories tend to enable statistical producers to monitor the progress and inform the policy makers on capacities and vulnerabilities of each of the aforementioned age subcategories. However, it is difficult to reveal the precise number of CRC-defined children in migrant stocks (until the age of 18), as the age group 15-19 is one subcategory in the dataset.
Based on UN DESA’s figures, migrant data available by single year, and expert opinions, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) makes estimates of the number of child migrants in migrant stocks that fit the CRC definition (of under 18 years).
Every four years since 2001, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published consolidated data on migrant stocks in OECD countries, which are disaggregated into five-year age groups (including 0-14 and 15-24 years). The dataset on migrant stocks in non-OECD countries is in three age groups (15-24 years, 25-64 years and over 65 years). The most recent public data sets are from 2011.
Data collection at the national level
Several countries provide data on international migrant stocks 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 and 15-19 years. Mexico publishes data on the number of asylum applications made by unaccompanied minors disaggregated by gender and country of origin. Argentina also publishes annual data on asylum applications, as well as asylum decisions, divided by gender and five age groups, including 0-4, 5-11 and 12-17 years.
Migrant flows by age:
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 the organization 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 and 14-17 years old. The number of unaccompanied minors is included in these data.
The European Commission’s Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography consolidates Eurostat data on asylum applications, decisions, residence permits and UNHCR’s data on populations of concern and arrivals to Europe disaggregated by age on an interactive map.
Several countries 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, and how many were accompanied and unaccompanied. The United Kingdom provides a summary number of how many children were in immigration detention annually. Australia publishes monthly data on those held in detention disaggregated by gender and those aged under 18.
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 in the world, depending on the size and needs of populations on the move. The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat and the Mixed Migration Hub also survey migrants in Northern Africa, and will expand their work to other regions. 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 affected situations of displacement. UNICEF reports on risks faced by migrant children using both primary and secondary quantitative and qualitative data sources.
The dataset compiled by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project includes information on the age of migrant deaths wherever possible. However, due to a lack of data on migrant deaths and disappearances disaggregated by age (less than 40 per cent of recorded incidents from 2014 to the first half of 2017 have information on age), these numbers are a gross underestimate of the true number of children who die during migration.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
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 or children who become 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, 2011). 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 (European Commission, 2016).
Differing definitions for age categories: The comparison of data on stocks and flows of migrant children and other age groups is difficult because countries analyze age and collect data using different definitions.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 minors 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).
|Humphries, R. and N. Sigona|
|2016||Children and unsafe migration in Europe: Data and policy, understanding the evidence base. Global Migration Data Analysis Centre Briefing Series, Issue 5.|
|United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations Children's Fund, and International Organization for Migration (UNHCR, UNICEF and IOM)|
|2017||Refugee and migrant children- Including unaccompanied and separated children - in the EU, Overview of trends in 2016. UNHCR, UNICEF and IOM Fact Sheet.|
|United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)|
|2016||Uprooted: The growing crisis for refugee and migrant children.|
|2017 (a)||A deadly journey for children: The central Mediterranean migration route.|
|2017 (b)||A child is a child: Protecting children on the move from violence, abuse and exploitation.|
|2017 (c)||Data for children – Strategic framework.|
|International Organization for Migration (IOM)|
|2017||Migrant Vulnerability to Human Trafficking and Exploitation: Evidence from the Central and Eastern Mediterranean Migration Routes, forthcoming.|
|United Nations Children's Fund and International Organization for Migration (UNICEF and IOM)|
|2017||Harrowing Journeys: Children and youth on the move across the Mediterranean Sea, at risk of trafficking and exploitation.|
|Separated Child in Europe Program|
|2011||Review of current laws, policies and practices relating to age assessment in sixteen European countries.|
|Sigona, N. and V. Hughes|
|2012||No way out, no way in: Irregular migrant children and families in the UK, Oxford: Centre on Migration Policy and Society.|
|United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)|
|2016||From a refugee perspective: Discourse of Arabic speaking and Afghan refugees and migrants on social media from March to December 2016.|
|United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)|
|2016||Global report on trafficking in persons, (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.16.IV.6.|
|Global Detention Project|
|2008||Statistics Annex - A synthesis of annual policy reports 2015 submitted by EU Member States and Norway.|
- 1. These data are for 37 to 53 countries.
- 2. The 32 countries include European Union countries and the four countries of the European Free Trade Association. Data include first-time applicants only.
- 3. Data are for age 17 or under and based on fiscal year.
- 4. Where 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.