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UNICEF Is Mobilizing To Protect Migrant Children in the U.S.

Building on decades of experience around the world, UNICEF is standing up for the rights of children seeking sanctuary in the U.S. 

UNICEF and partners are working tirelessly all over the world to save and protect children.

For the thousands of traumatized children — many of them babies and toddlers — separated from their parents and detained along the southwestern U.S. border, the future remains uncertain. Migrant children are children, first and foremost. They should remain with their families, kept out of detention centers and provided with health care and other essential services regardless of their immigration status.

UNICEF and UNICEF USA are mobilizing to ensure the rights, protection, wellbeing and dignity of migrant and refugee children, wherever they may be. 

The detention of migrant children remains a growing human rights issue

Leaving home is always a choice of last resort. Yet every day, children and families set out from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras in a desperate search for safety, opportunity and a better life. "This past week, I visited with children and families from northern Central America at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore. "None wanted to leave their countries, but all felt they had no choice because of the threat of gang violence or oppressive poverty."

Children and families leave home because they feel they have no choice

According to the UNICEF Child Alert: Uprooted in Central America and Mexico, extreme poverty, limited access to education and other vital services, organized crime and extortion compel families to make the perilous journey northward. 

For many years, UNICEF offices in Central America have been working to strengthen national protection systems and address the root causes of migration, implementing programs designed to break the cycle of violence at home, make schools safe for students, fight poverty and create opportunity. Yet parents desperate to find safety for their children continue to seek asylum in the U.S., and so UNICEF's vital programs will move with them. 

The programs are rooted in evidence-based strategies that follow UNICEF's proven approach to addressing the needs of vulnerable children caught in the international refugee and migrant crisis

UNICEF is bringing decades of humanitarian expertise to help vulnerable immigrant children seeking asylum in the U.S. 

UNICEF and UNICEF USA, in consultation with partners, are working to support the strengthening and expansion of partners' good work and existing protection measures for refugee and migrant children who have crossed the border into the U.S. This includes strengthening cross-border cooperation, scaling up and advocating for alternatives to detention and combatting xenophobia:

  • Strengthening Cross-Border Cooperation: Working with regional and U.S.-based NGOs to enhance cross-border information sharing, case management and referrals (including technical assistance on child-sensitive returns), and reintegration practices that are in the best interests of the children
  • Alternatives to Detention: Working with critical stakeholders in the U.S. to strengthen and support awareness of effective alternatives to detention and scaling up programs
  • Alternative Care: Expanding the capacity of the system for unaccompanied chidlren to use family- and community-based models through technical assistance and partnerships 
  • Highlighting Best Practices for Case Management Services: UNICEF is developing a solutions-focused report highlighting effective programs for refugee and migrant children in the U.S. and noting critical gaps in services
  • Combatting Racism and Xenophobia: Developing an advocacy and communication campaign promoting the message that migrant children are children first; advocating for the fair treatment of children and briefing congressional members about the regional circumstances

As children seeking safety make the dangerous journey across the border into the U.S., UNICEF will be there to support them every step of the way

UNICEF is working with trusted partners such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN) to support respite centers for migrant children and their families. Respite centers provide meals, basic first aid or medical care, fresh clothing, showers, temporary shelter and general guidance.

Built out by Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFS) and the ACLU San Diego in 2017, the SDRRN includes eight core partners, including human rights and service organizations, and operates the largest respite center for asylum-seeking families in the San Diego border region. To date, the SDRRN has served more than 7,500 individuals, with an average of 60 new asylum seekers each day (though lately the numbers have been as high as 100 per day).

The USCCB provides national coordination and per capita funding to multi-service organizations for asylum-seeking families and unaccompanied children. UNICEF is supporting selected agencies in the USCCB network, based on their recommendation of needs, including Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Vallen in McAllen, TX, which operates an emergency respite center in the sector with the largest number of families and unaccompanied children on the southwest border. 

UNICEF is strengthening support for and awareness of safe, cost-effective alternatives to detention

To replace detention facilities, UNICEF is working to build support for and awareness of safe, cost-effective alternatives to detention — such as foster-care settings, group homes and open-door shelters — and hopes to scale up programs that work.

In practice, open-door shelters are community-based residential care facilities at which children receive psychosocial support, have access to education and health services, and get legal information and assistance. UNICEF Mexico has invested in piloting alternatives to detention, including an open-door shelter in Tabasco. As a result of the shelter's success, the Mexican government has committed to working in partnership with UNICEF to bring this model to scale on a national level so that no children are detained for migration purposes.  

UNICEF's approach is rooted in six strategic policy objectives

UNICEF's approach is rooted in six strategic policy objectives:

  • End the detention of children seeking international protection
  • Keep families together as the best way to protect children
  • Protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence
  • Keep all refugee and migrant children learning, with access to health and other services
  • Press for action on the underlying causes of large-scale movements of refugees and migrants
  • Promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization in countries and areas of transit, destination and return

Migration is not a crime and should not be treated as one

UNICEF works to keep children in school, make schools safe, strengthen community centers and collaborate with local government, community partners and faith-based organizations to provide psychosocial support to children affected by gang violence. UNICEF also coordinates with consular authorities to ensure the protection of children abroad and with migration and child protection bodies to establish and implement standards on the treatment of migrant children. 

UNICEF's comprehensive approach addresses the rights of children in countries of origin (preventing and responding to violence and improving opportunities), during transit (ensuring access to services, case management and appropriate care), during reintegration (if they are returned to their home communities) or at their destination (in this case, social integration and non-discrimination in the U.S.).



For over 70 years, UNICEF has been putting children first, working to protect their rights and provide the assistance and services they need to survive and thrive. With a presence in 190 countries and territories, UNICEF has helped save more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world.

Top photo: UNICEF is working with local partners to support the needs of migrants at emergency shelters like this one, run by Sister Norma Pimentel, at the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas. © UNICEF USA

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