In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the statistics and available data reveal that children belong to the population group that has suffered the least health impact, as they are less prone to the risk of infection, especially compared to older adults.
However, these data refer merely to the health effects of the pandemic. Critical social consequences, such as school closings, mobility restrictions and increased economic difficulties, have contributed to increased insecurity and vulnerability of the younger population, who will have to cope with the short and long-term socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
The situation of double precariousness of migrant and displaced children, who are already among the most vulnerable populations in the world, has deteriorated during the pandemic, due to greater exposure to situations of poverty aggravated by the economic crisis, to human rights violations, such as in the cases of labor exploitations of minors, fostered by losses in household income, and temporarily suspended access to education, together with an increased risk of suffering from mental illness in such a discouraging and critical context.
According to an IOM article on the implications of the pandemic on migrant children, among the most relevant are:
Increase in dismissals: In some countries, the pandemic has been used as a justification to increase the return of minors to their countries of origin and to paralyze distribution in shelters. In the United States, however, 24,000 migrant children have been able to leave immigration detention centres since the beginning of the pandemic. Even more numerous have been the forced repatriations of minors to Central American countries, in particular Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, despite the fact that the communities of origin of migrants may not present the necessary conditions to guarantee their safety and protection. Furthermore, the dismissals have been carried out without testing for the virus and without ascertaining whether migrants needed protection for fear of being persecuted in their countries of origin.
Deterioration of the situation in shelters and detention centres: The reduced number of humanitarian workers in shelters, the shortage of basic resources and supplies, and the decline in services provided to migrants have hardened the living conditions of children in reception centres, intensifying their vulnerability. During the COVID-19 emergency, the capability of child protection systems in northern Central America and Mexico has also been weakened due to a lack of personal protective equipment, which has implied fewer protection services, virus testing and treatment.
School closure and exclusion: Isolation measures have forced schools to paralyze their activities. Migrant children may lack the resources to take courses online, such as computers and other types of digital technology devices. This lack can affect the future possibilities to get out of poverty through their human capital and skills, together with the increase in school dropouts. Likewise, migrant children may encounter more difficulties in terms of language learning, which leads to a lower ability to integrate. It also has to be taken into account that, being at home and not at school, children need more attention. This could force their mothers and fathers to leave their jobs to take care of them, affecting the economic situation of the family, which in turn may lead to child labour episodes in the future.
Border closure and increased xenophobia: The journey of unaccompanied and accompanied migrant children to the country of destination has been abruptly interrupted, due to measures to restrict mobility and border closures. Young migrants, temporarily stranded in areas near the borders, have been exposed to greater forms of xenophobia by the community in the country of transit, being accused, in many cases erroneously, of bringing the disease or facilitating contagion. As the IOM report indicates, the closure of borders, together with the deportations of minors, has led to a drop in cases of protective custody of children.
Discrimination in the community of origin: Young migrants who escape from situations of conflict, persecution, environmental calamity, abuse, violence and lack of opportunities, are exposed to human rights violations and difficult conditions not only along the way to the country of destination, but also when returning to their country of origin, as they are sometimes perceived as possible sources of contagion. Henrietta Foe, Executive Director of UNICEF, pointed out that “many children who return face a double risk and are more in danger than when they left their communities”, as they have to confront again with the situation of insecurity in their community of origin and are victims of increased discrimination.
Effects on mental health: The highest levels of tension and stress of the migrant population also affect children, especially in cases where the COVID-19 disease causes the death of their fathers or mothers, which can lead to increased exposure to abuse. Many migrant and displaced children may suffer from psychological trauma, marginalization or stigma, in addition to not being able to receive psychological support during the pandemic.
Although the reports in the media focus on sharing mainly statistics and data about the number of people who have contracted the COVID-19 disease, we must also focus our attention on generating debates and policies for the population stratum that will experience the longest-lasting impact of the pandemic: children.
Migrant children need immediate protection and social and health assistance, that will allow them to learn, grow and achieve better living conditions. They must be a priority to counteract and reduce the short and long-term effects of the pandemic.