Migratory children. Challenges and opportunities- Jorge Fernández

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“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

African proverb

Migration is not a new topic to discuss in the history of humanity. However, what may be new is the array of complex reasons why people migrate both at global and regional levels. The migratory flows occur for various reasons, some of which may be financial or to improve living conditions, while others may be related to forced displacement due to the effects of climate change, and sometimes they may be to save their lives or ensure their freedom or safety.

The numbers presented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) speak for themselves; a clear account of this provided by the UNHCR is that over 100 million people have been forced to flee from their homes for one of the afore-mentioned reasons (violence and general violation of human rights, war, forced displacement, among others.)

To this analysis, we can also include the intercontinental migration flows coming into our region, where people are fleeing from over 15 ongoing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine. Other conflicts that have not been solved in decades include the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, among others, which are not as widely discussed in the media.

The immense number of migrant people are in a vulnerable position when they reach the new territory, becoming worse as the migratory route advances. 

There are several migratory flows in Latin America, such as the ones originating from Haiti, Cuba and other islands of the Caribbean, as well as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico (together with other countries) that migrate from this Central American region to the United States. Another flow reaching for the American dream is originated in Venezuela, crossing the Darién Gap in Colombia, in the border with Panama. This mixed movement (referring to a group of migrants or refugees that are in need of international protection) passes through Brazil or Colombia to the south of Chile or Argentina. 

In practically all of these cases, we can find children within the school age group, but what happens during the migratory process? The first thing that happens is that they are pulled out of their countries’ educational system and, until they reach a destination, they no longer have contact with it, which not only affects the right to education, but also the rights enshrined in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child as an instrument of International Human Rights that protect them. However, in an unequal continent, such as the American continent, children’s access to their rights is also unequal.

When people are forced to migrate in vulnerable (and sometimes in extremely vulnerable) cases, the route to their destination deprives them of the recognition of and respect for their basic human rights, such as the right to nourishment, health, education and work, and it is necessary to analyze this issue more deeply to better understand it and cover its complexity. In some cases, the State does not recognize the child’s right to education because they do not have proper migratory documentation or because their family members or traveling partners cannot account for compliance with entrance or permanence regulations in that country. This situation leaves them excluded and increases their vulnerability, along with other needs related to nourishment and health (physical, emotional and mental). When children, or any person regardless of their age, travel a region from North to South and South to North, they have extreme experiences (such as spending days without food, seeing bodies impacted by the lengths walked, an array of violence and the unique risks posed by each territory) that will leave scars, hindering the learning process once they reach the desired or forced location.

As soon as they are settled, the first challenge is to have the ability to cover their basic needs, like nourishment, housing, shelter and health, to then think about their educational needs; in general, these are covered by humanitarian, faith-based or community organizations. 

The next step is to defend the rights of these groups to fully access and exercise their rights, which is not an easy task given the States in our regions. Even though there have been some improvements, there is still a long way to go. There is much to achieve for children to be at the center of State and educational agendas.

When a child arrives at a new school (preschool or primary), they first need to adapt and learn the codes shared by their peers, school and teachers. In some cases, they also need to learn a whole new language, which sometimes involves acting as translators for their parents before teachers, authorities or any other person in their surroundings. 

The word that best describes this situation is ‘stress’, which may or may not be visible to the adults in their lives; thus, mental health becomes an indispensable topic to be included in the agenda of any educational system that intends to achieve a real and tangible social inclusion and integration.

The needs range from pencils and books to safe and friendly spaces that help those children heal the wounds left from the road and therefore recover some of that childhood left behind with each kilometer traveled. It is essential to assist in the new socializing process, in re-building the relationship with estranged family members and supporting them to adapt to this next environment. 

This is sometimes covered intuitively by different communitarian organization or, in some cases, there are support programs to assist during this difficult moment, such the first weeks, months or years, including games, music and every kind of artistic expression, which is very helpful to express emotions.

In this context, it is a fundamental first step for schools and teachers to be increasingly sensitive, open to diversity and cultural differences, understanding of needs (which are often invisible and not openly expressed) of these migratory children, so that their reception is positive and significant, which will make a difference in the lives of thousands of children who did not have a choice in the migration process.

The ability to be resilient will be enabled if there is a context that fosters it. If this is the case, their context, experiences and new relationships will create various opportunities to learn, develop knowledge, and value both which is familiar and foreign, where diversity is a positive trait rather that strange or negative. 

Migration can have a positive effect on our communities, such as providing news and talent, enriching diversity and so much more, if this is seen as valuable from the countless possibilities that childhood offers. This will pave the way for peace and mutual understanding in each society. 

Supporting children and young migrants and refugees for their integration and inclusion is betting on a better neighborhood, community and society. Now the challenge is for the adults to educate in a loving way and give room for all those dreams and abilities to be developed, so that the future is not just a vague promise.

 Jorge J. Fernández is Argentinian and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Institution Organization and Management (UNSAM). He also possesses an international diploma in Human Rights, Risk Management and Public Policies for Disaster Prevention in Latin America and the Caribbean (Henry Dunant Foundation, Chile). He was awarded a Masters’ degree in Communication and Human Rights (UNLP). With over 30 years of experience managing national and international civil society organizations, he has been in leadership positions like Scouts in Argentina, the World Organization of the Scout Movement, Argentina’s Ministry of Social Development, Uruguay’s Scout Movement and the Fundación Vivienda Digna [Adequate Housing Foundation]. In the humanitarian sector, he has worked in leadership positions in the Argentinian Red Cross, Save the Children, the UN Development Programme (Chile), the Argentinian Catholic Migration Commission, the Refugee Assistance Centre (ADRA, UNHCR). Apart from this, he is a volunteer at Scouts in Argentina and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergency Settings, and he is a facilitator at the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) in Switzerland. He is currently coordinating projects for the Ecumenical Regional Center for Counseling and Service (CREAS, for its Spanish acronym).

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