Childhood Studies Unaccompanied Migrant Children
Lauren Heidbrink
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0252


Although children have migrated unaccompanied for centuries, the past decade has brought an increasing visibility of unaccompanied children in the media and among policymakers. An unaccompanied migrant child is defined as an individual under the age of eighteen years old who migrates across international borders and is separated from their parent or legal/customary guardian. Depending on national and regional laws, other terms include unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, independent child migrants, unaccompanied refugees, or separated children. The term “unaccompanied child” is a legal definition, not a lived experience. Often presumed alone, independent, or shorn of kinship ties, research shows that unaccompanied children are members of families and communities who may rely on migration as a means to escape violence or conflict, to navigate precarity or marginalization, or to advance individual or familial migratory projects. That is, unaccompanied children are not simple victims or dependent minors; they enlist their social agency to navigate conditions not of their own choosing. Unaccompanied child migration exists at the lived interstices of global discourses on race, gender, class, and ideologies of childhood and parenthood that are created and re-created through social structures and institutions. The fields of anthropology, sociology, social work, and legal and childhood studies predominantly have focused on the experiences of young migrants in so-called destination nations such as the United States and European Union countries and the policies and practices which govern their im/mobility. Whereas the legal category of “unaccompanied child” predominates in the Global North, only following the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018 has the term been taken up in other regions of the world. As a result, the literature specific to unaccompanied child migration is geographically uneven. Key areas of inquiry about unaccompanied child migration include their hostile reception in countries of arrival; often-indecipherable legal systems; the humanitarian sector’s involvement in the detention and deportation of children; differing conceptualizations of care and caregiving; and the mental health consequences of past traumas, present challenges, and future uncertainties. Scholarship has only recently emerged on the experiences of unaccompanied children and youth in countries of transit and origin or return. This literature provides critical historical, social, and cultural context to the causes and meanings of migration, individual and familial decision-making processes, the violence young people encounter en route, and their experiences in the aftermath of deportation. The socio-legal literature challenges the false dichotomy between voluntary and forced migration that is reproduced in policy and humanitarian aid and additionally focuses on the best interests and rights of children.

General Works

Bhabha, et al. 2018, a research handbook, provides global case studies situated within a child rights framework. Lems, et al. 2020 provides an overview of ethnographic literature on child migration en route to and within Europe. Kulu-Glasgow, et al. 2019 focuses on young people’s experiences of integration following migration to Europe. Menjívar and Perreira 2019 provides a literature review of child migration to the United States and Europe. Padilla-Rodríguez 2020 examines the history of child migration and immigration policies to the United States. Asis and Feranil 2020 focuses on emergent forms of child mobility in Asia. Heidbrink 2020 offers an ethnography of child migration and deportation in Central America. Humphris and Sigona 2019 examines how bureaucracies makes children either visible or invisible in accordance with state interests. Passarlay 2017 and Zamora 2018 provide critical, firsthand accounts of their migration as unaccompanied children.

  • Asis, Maruja M. B., and Alan Feranil. “Not for Adults Only: Toward a Child Lens in Migration Policies in Asia.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 8.1 (2020): 68–82.

    DOI: 10.1177/2331502420907375

    Since the 1970s, migration from and within Asia has increased due to immigration reforms in countries of settlement; enhanced employment opportunities in the Middle East, East Asia, and Southeast Asia; periodic refugee influxes; and emergent types of migration such as for marriage or to study. Children figure in policy primarily as left-behind children and members of multicultural families. Additional awareness and protections are needed in Asia for children who migrate.

  • Bhabha, Jacqueline, Jyothi Kanics, and Daniel Senovilla Hernández, eds. Research Handbook on Child Migration. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2018.

    This interdisciplinary volume draws together researchers, practitioners, and advocates across geographic regions to trace histories of child migration, migration traditions and trajectories, institutional frameworks for child migration, categorical distinctions within child migration, child specific challenges to rights protection, and migrant children’s experiences.

  • Heidbrink, Lauren. Migranthood: Youth in a New Era of Deportation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503612082

    Unaccompanied migrant youth draw from social, cultural, and political repertoires to navigate precarity and marginality in Guatemala. By attending to young people’s perspectives in zones of transit in Mexico, US detention centers, and following deportation, Heidbrink examines the critical roles they play as contributors to household economies, local practices, and global processes. The insights of Indigenous youth uncover the transnational effects of securitized responses to migration management and extractive development.

  • Humphris, Rachel, and Nando Sigona. “The Bureaucratic Capture of Child Migrants: Effects of In/visibility on Children on the Move.” Antipode 51.5 (2019): 1495–1514.

    DOI: 10.1111/anti.12548

    This article examines how the state makes unaccompanied children visible or invisible through labeling, data production, and distribution of social services. Using the case of unaccompanied Roma children, the authors argue that children’s in/visibility is defined primarily when the best interests of children and the state align.

  • Kulu-Glasgow, Işık, Monika Smit, and Ibrahim Sirkeci, eds. Unaccompanied Children: From Migration to Integration. London: Transnational Press, 2019.

    Unaccompanied minors confront considerable risks in their migration journeys, yet arrival does not necessarily ensure their safety. Hostile immigration policies, poverty, marginalization, and cultural differences pose additional challenges to settlement and integration. This edited volume includes case studies from various world regions, tracing young people’s experiences of decision-making, migration, transit, arrival, and settlement.

  • Lems, Annika, Kathrin Oester, and Sabine Strasser. “Children of the Crisis: Ethnographic Perspectives on Unaccompanied Refugee Youth in and en route to Europe.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 46.2 (2020): 315–335.

    DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2019.1584697

    Unaccompanied children and youth have emerged as an ambiguous crisis figure in Europe. Amid paradoxical discursive formations of unaccompanied children as either deserving victim or a threat, young people navigate both local moral worlds and translocal dynamics. In this introductory article to special issue “Children of the Crisis”, the editors trace how ethnographic research with unaccompanied minors is particularly attuned to situating their mobility in historical and cultural context.

  • Menjívar, Cecilia, and Krista M. Perreira. “Undocumented and Unaccompanied: Children of Migration in the European Union and the United States.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45.2 (2019): 197–217.

    DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2017.1404255

    Unaccompanied children confront considerable violence when migrating from the Global South and arriving in Europe and the United States. This article identifies the political and structural violence young people encounter at each stage of migration, including pre-migration, migration, and post-migration.

  • Padilla-Rodríguez, Ivón. “Child Migrants in 20th-Century America.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    While most children passed quickly through US inspection stations in the first half of the 20th century, Chinese and Japanese child migrants were frequently detained, separated from families, and deported. Legislation such as the 1953 Refugee Relief Act and the 1980 Refugee Act facilitated the admission of unaccompanied children, yet exclusionary laws in the latter half of the 20th century have thwarted the arrival of Mexican, Central American, and Haitian children.

  • Passarlay, Gulwali. The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year-Old Refugee’s Extraordinary Journey Across Half the World. New York: Harper One, 2017.

    Passarlay shares his firsthand account of unaccompanied migration from Afghanistan, where he fled both conscription from the Taliban and US efforts to enlist him. Passarlay narrates his harrowing journey, imprisonment, and near-death experiences as he crosses eight countries and eventually settles in the United Kingdom.

  • Zamora, Javier. Unaccompanied. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2018.

    Unaccompanied is an autobiographical account of Zamora’s migration at nine years old from El Salvador to reunify with his parents in the United States. Through poetry and personal narrative, Zamora engages in discussions of borderland politics, race, immigration, and transnational belonging.

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