In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Migration Experiences
  • Detention
  • Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children Seeking Citizenship
  • Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children on the Pathway to Citizenship in the US: The Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Foster Care Program
  • Policy-Related Articles

Social Work Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children
Kerri Evans
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0336


Unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children are generally seen as young people (under the age of eighteen) who travel across borders to a new country without a parent or legal guardian. Across the world, these young people are subject to different legal definitions, rights, and treatment in the country of arrival. Some countries use other terms to refer to these children, such as unaccompanied alien children, unaccompanied immigrant children, unaccompanied children, and separated children. Researchers similarly use a compilation of these terms. The definitions that describe these vulnerable children are similar, yet they vary from one country to another. The majority include the age of eighteen years as the maximum age for which a child would qualify as an unaccompanied minor. The majority specify that the immigrant should arrive without legal guardians, but some countries, such as Australia, explicitly state that siblings and adult relatives over the age of eighteen would prohibit the child from being unaccompanied by policy. Some countries combine unaccompanied and separated children together, and others consider “separated” to be a different category. The nuance here is that separated children are apart from their biological parents during migration but intend to reunify and are often staying in the care of extended family members during that time. Unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children are protected by both international and country-specific policies. Many countries around the world are party to the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child and would argue that unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children who arrive to their country should be given rights as outlined in this document. This becomes inherently complicated when countries have policies that criminalize immigrants rather than protect the status of unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children seeking assistance. While there are protections, there are also many instances in which people, governments, and policies discriminate against unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children and treat them poorly.

General Overviews

The articles in this section provide a wide scope of information related to unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children and are intended for readers who are new to the topic. Androff 2016 uses a human rights approach to explain why we should be concerned about this vulnerable group of children. The book Haker and Greening 2019 provides a global overview of the issue of migrating unaccompanied, and Hosseini and Punzi 2021 provides important insight about the ways in which unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children integrate, and struggle to integrate, into communities. UNHCR 2014 goes in-depth to explain the unique vulnerabilities of one group of unaccompanied immigrant children, embarking on migration journeys from Central America to the United States. Byrne and Miller 2012 and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service 2015 both provide an overview of their care and protection in the United States. Crea, et al. 2018 and Evans, et al. 2018 both discuss considerations for best practices from different angles. Lastly, Hosseini and Punzi 2021 provides important insight into a more holistic idea of integration.

  • Androff, D. 2016. The human rights of unaccompanied minors in the USA from Central America. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work 1:71–77.

    DOI: 10.1007/s41134-016-0011-2

    This article provides an overview of the Mexico-US border, including policies and immigration trends over time. The author shares the political, legal, and social work responses to the unprecedented number of unaccompanied immigrant children that began arriving in the US in 2014. The human rights of these children are discussed in terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and comparing them to other child migrants.

  • Byrne, O., and E. Miller. 2012. The flow of unaccompanied children through the immigration system: A resource for practitioners, policy makers, and researchers. New York: Vera Institute of Justice.

    This piece by The Vera Institute of Justice, a legal service provider, aims to explain the legal process for unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States in basic terms to benefit practitioners and researchers. The document describes the legal statuses of unaccompanied immigrant children as well as how they are given care from the point of apprehension to the point of release into the community.

  • Crea, T. M., A. Lopez, R. G. Hasson III, K. Evans, C. Palleschi, and D. Underwood. 2018. Unaccompanied migrant children in long term foster care: Identifying needs and best practices from a child welfare perspective. Children & Youth Services Review 92:56–64.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.12.017

    This article provides a brief overview of the needs of unaccompanied children, which include identifying appropriate foster homes, securing community connections, education, independent living skills, trauma, mental health issues, and a lack of legal status. The authors go on to provide a variety of promising practices implemented by social service agencies to meet these needs. Many are replicable, making this a great overview piece.

  • Evans, K., K. Diebold, and R. Calvo. 2018. A call to action: Reimagining social work practice with unaccompanied minors. Advances in Social Work 18:788–807.

    DOI: 10.18060/21643

    This article draws from twelve years of practice experience with unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children and is designed to be an overview for university students and helping professionals as an introduction to working with unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children. The authors highlight some key considerations and recommendations, and tailor the article so that it can be a resource for helping professionals who do not generally work with immigrants yet want to get a little more information.

  • Haker, Hille, and Molly Greening. 2019. Unaccompanied migrant children: Social, legal, and ethical perspectives. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    This book provides an overview of the situation that unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children face around the globe. There are chapters on what it means to be unaccompanied, violence causing displacement, detachment, vocational training in Germany, asylum processes in Sweden, children’s rights, and ethics of service provision.

  • Hosseini, M., and E. Punzi. 2021. Afghan unaccompanied refugee minors’ understandings of integration: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Smith College Studies in Social Work 91.3: 165–186.

    DOI: 10.1080/00377317.2021.1889445

    In this study, Afghan unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in Sweden discuss the breadth of things they consider to be part of healthy integration. The list entails connectedness to people, relationships, tangible support, educational attainment, employment or volunteer work, paying taxes, and leisure activities all as markers of integration. Scholars can use this article as an argument to be more inclusive as compared to studies that consider economic wellbeing as the main indicator of integration.

  • Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). 2015. At the crossroads for unaccompanied migrant children: Policy, practice, & protection. Chicago: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

    This is a foundational document related to the care and protection of unaccompanied immigrant children. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the largest care providers of services for unaccompanied children in the US, held a series of listening sessions with numerous organizations that serve these children. The report explains the policies in place and what happens in practice, and provides recommendations to ensure protection for unaccompanied immigrant children.

  • UNHCR. 2014. Children on the run. New York: UNHCR.

    The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees conducted a study with 404 youth who had crossed the border into the US unaccompanied from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico to understand why children were migrating. Results showed migration due to violence in society, deprivation, abuse in home, and family/opportunity in the US among the top reasons. This is the landmark document for understanding the reasons for migration to the United States.

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