Unaccompanied/Separated Children

Resource Persons: Aryah Somers Landsberger and Jason Pobjoy

Aryah Somers Landsberger 

Director of Programs 
Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees 
Tel: 001 52 04 50 90 64
Email:  aryah@gcir.org

Aryah is currently a consultant and most recently was Senior Research Consultant for UNHCR’s report, “Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Proiection.” She was a Fulbright Scholar in Guatemala conducting research on unaccompanied children removed from the United States. She has previously worked as the Senior Program Associate at the  Vera Institute of Justice  on the Unaccompanied Children Pro Bono Project, as a consultant for the UNHCR-International Catholic Migration Commission resettlement deployment scheme in Ecuador, and also co-facilitating the first UNHCR Best Interest Determination Workshop in the Americas in Costa Rica. From 2005 to 2008, Aryah worked as a staff attorney for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. From 2004 to 2005, Aryah worked with the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance as a legal advisor for unaccompanied minors in Cairo, Egypt. Aryah was also an associate attorney at Jones Day. She earned her JD from the Georgetown University Law Center, MA from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and BA from George Washington University.

Jason Pobjoy

Blackstone Chambers
Email:  jason.pobjoy@gmail.com
Twitter: @jasonpobjoy

Dr Jason Pobjoy is a barrister at Blackstone Chambers, where he has a broad practice including public and human rights law, refugee and immigration law and public international law. He appears regularly in the General Court, Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights and United Kingdom Supreme Court. He is a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Dr Pobjoy’s monograph, The Child in International Refugee Law , was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. An abstract for the book is set out below:

Children are the victims of some of the most devastating examples of state-sanctioned and private human rights abuse. In increasing numbers, they are attempting to find international protection, and are forced to navigate complex administrative and legal processes that fail to take into account their distinct needs and vulnerabilities. The key challenges they face in establishing entitlement to refugee protection are their invisibility and the risk of incorrect assessment. Drawing on an extensive and original analysis of jurisprudence of leading common law jurisdictions, this book undertakes an assessment of the extent to which these challenges may be overcome by greater engagement between international refugee law and international law on the rights of the child. The result is the first comprehensive study on the manner in which these two mutually reinforcing legal regimes can interact to strengthen the protection of refugee children.

For further details see:  http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/law/human-rights/child-international-refugee-law?format=PB&isbn=9781316627402


The information contained on this page is intended to provide an overview of certain key issues relating to the protection of unaccompanied and separated children. The global movement of unaccompanied and separated children presents extraordinary challenges for children’s rights advocates, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and most importantly, children themselves. Unaccompanied and separated children are not only vulnerable to the global trends towards the criminalization, imprisonment, and encampment of asylum seekers and migrants, but also face heightened vulnerability by virtue of their age and status to exploitation, trafficking, and violations of their rights as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereinafter the “CRC”).

They may be denied entry at the border, or detained by immigration officials and given no opportunity to seek asylum. Higher likelihood of abuse and exposure to traumatic events, and lack of access to registration, family tracing, legal advice and guardianship procedures are some of the many difficulties faced by this category of refugee children.

Unaccompanied and separated children who are migrants, forcible migrants, environmental migrants, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless and internally displaced find themselves falling into refugee and asylee encampments, adult systems of enforcement of immigration and asylum laws, adult and juvenile criminal justice systems, and child protection systems both within and outside of their countries of origin. There are also children who do not become visible to any of these systems who may be living in marginalized, dangerous, or harmful situations, such as those in urban settings where identification is very problematic. These children with low visibility also include children who, although not living in dangerous situations, may still face violations of their rights under the CRC due to their irregular legal status and fear of coming into contact with government or quasi-government institutions.

The many challenges involved in providing protection to these children are compounded by the fact that identifying unaccompanied minors is not always a straightforward process. Some come from societies where date of birth is not systematically recorded and may lack satisfactory proof of age. Many arrive with inadequate documentation owing to the circumstances of their departure or to administrative limitations in their country of origin. The possibility of child trafficking is also a cause for concern when the relationship between a minor claimant and the adult who arrives with or meets the child cannot be verified.

The normative and legal framework for working with unaccompanied and separated children is best articulated in the CRC. By utilizing this framework, the focus is first upon the child, rather than the legal status of the child. The four core principles of the CRC are: right to life, survival and development; right to non-discrimination; the right to participation; and the best interest of the child. These four principles should be the cornerstone of any policy, whether state or community based, on unaccompanied and separated children. In addition to this normative and legal framework, it is also necessary to take into account psychological, cognitive and neurobiological understandings of child and adolescent development to ensure appropriate implementation of any developed framework or policy. UNHCR has recently released guidelines on international protection specific to children’s asylum claims that references this normative and legal framework and provides both procedural and substantive guidance. (Guidelines on International Protection: Child Asylum Claims under Articles 1(A)(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, HCR/GIP/09/08, 22 December 2009).

Unaccompanied and separated children are most often facing legal systems that were constructed for adults and subject to adult standards. A number of reports have highlighted the challenges that children face in these systems ( “What’s going to happen tomorrow?”: Unaccompanied Children Refused Asylum (Children’s Commissioner, April 2014) ; “A Treacherous Journey: Child Migrants Navigating the U.S. System,” KIND and CGRS, February 2014 ).  

Definition of Unaccompanied and Separated Children

While the CRC provides definitions for child, unaccompanied children or unaccompanied minors, and separated children, it is important to note that countries around the world have developed alternate definitions for these same terms as they apply within the context of their immigration, asylum, child protection and criminal justice systems. There are many places around the world that appear to be using the CRC definition, particularly in countries where UNHCR is the adjudicator of refugee status determination. Based upon the definition utilized and the interpretation and implementation of that definition, children may face vastly different protection regimes. Practitioners may need to analyze the impact of the prevailing definition of the child, perhaps even when a parent or legal guardian is present, to ensure it is the child’s legal interest and best interest that are at the forefront. Below is a sampling of definitions.

  • Canada: There are two different definitions of unaccompanied children that are used in Canada. The office of Citizenship and Immigration Canada considers that an unaccompanied child is one who is not accompanied by a member of the Family Class (i.e. parent, spouse or child), or does not arrive in Canada to join such a person. For the Immigration and Refugee Board, an unaccompanied child is one who is alone in Canada without parents or anyone who purports to be a family member.
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child: A child is every human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier. Unaccompanied children are children who have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so. Separated children are children who have been separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, but not necessarily from other relatives.  These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members.

  • Finland: While there is no official definition, an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker in practice is a minor less than 18 years old, seeking international protection, and arrives in the country totally alone or in nobody’s custody.

  • Greece: An unaccompanied child as a person below the age of 18 without an adult customarily or legally responsible for his or her care.

  • South Africa: Lawyers for Human Rights have advocated for the definition of child in the Children’s Bill to be amended to read that a child is any person under the age of 18, irrespective of nationality, and that a definition for unaccompanied foreign child be added to mean a child where no person can be found who by law or custom has primary responsibility for that child (a child who is separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible to do so).

  • Statement of Good Practice for Separated Children in Europe: Separated children is preferred over unaccompanied children, as it better defines the essential problem that such children face [being] without the care and protection of their parents or legal guardian and as a consequence suffer socially and psychologically from this separation.

  • United Kingdom: A child under 18 outside their country of origin who is not accompanied by a close relative (regardless of whether or not that relative usually cares for the child).

  • United States: An unaccompanied alien child is a child who (A) has no lawful immigration status in the United States; (B) has not attained 18 years of age; and (C) with respect to whom—(i) there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States; or (ii) no parent or legal guardian in the United States is available to provide care and physical custody.

Key Procedural Considerations

Unaccompanied and separated children will also encounter varying procedural systems that take into account their rights and needs. It is important to ensure that certain children are not marginalized or discriminated against in these procedural systems, based on factors such as language, gender, mental health, disability, or that the child is believed to have committed exclusionary acts or to have been involved in armed conflict. Below are some of the key procedural considerations that the practitioner will encounter in working with and advocating for unaccompanied and separated children.
  • Best Interest of the Child: Article 3 of the CRC sets out that in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. The best interest of the child should be mainstreamed into all aspects of procedural operations involving unaccompanied and separated children
  • Identification: Identification of unaccompanied and separated children will depend on many factors, including the policy on the treatment of persons arriving or crossing borders and checkpoints, the policing structure in place at all points of entry into national borders and internal checkpoints, the training received by personnel policing all points of entry and checkpoints, and policies on detention and encampment. Unaccompanied and separated children within large influxes of asylum seekers and refugees, mixed migration flows, in camps and in urban settings pose significant challenges of identification. Identification procedures must include age-appropriate non-adversarial interviewing by trained personnel. The principle of the benefit of the doubt must operate in favor of the child such that in cases of uncertainty, there should be a presumption in favor of the child and the child should be provided with any available specialized protections. Practitioners should be particularly aware of the possibility that children may have been coached to provide a certain story. This should not lead to any punitive actions against the child. Practitioners may want to consult guidelines, research and other practitioners for assistance in designing or responding to difficult issues of identification.

  • Age Assessment: Age assessment procedures have created great difficulties for unaccompanied and separated children seeking asylum. This has arisen particularly in response to the perception that people may be trying to access specialized services and protections only available to children. Holistic age assessment tools have been favored over biometric age assessment tools.

  • Care and Custody: Unaccompanied and separated children should not be detained. The core of a care and custody regime should ensure safety, security, be the least restrictive and provide for basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. The emergence of detention in prison-like conditions as a primary method for the care and custody of children has been widely criticized in Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Australia and the United States. There has been progress in some countries, such as the United States, towards a more humane and child-welfare oriented system. Yet, the law and order model of imprisonment and long-term encampment of unaccompanied and separated refugee and asylum seeking children continues to be used to the detriment of the children and their healthy development. Practitioners may want to consult child welfare materials for guidance on establishing humane, child-welfare oriented and rights-based systems for children.

  • Appointment of a guardian ad litem and the provision of legal counsel: As systems have evolved into complex procedures and substantive law, it is critical that competent adults are in these systems to represent the child’s best interests and the child’s legal interests in a language and format that the child can understand. Legal counsel should be appointed to ensure that the child’s legal interests are protected in the administrative legal proceedings and for the protection of any other legal rights to which the child is entitled. The guardian ad litem model calls for a special child advocate to be appointed to represent the child’s best interests, which involves a broader analysis of the child’s developmental needs, point of view, safe environment and risk of harm, permanency, well-being, age and maturity, and history of flight or persecution.

  • Mental Health Services: While children certainly have resiliencies, they may also have endured or witnessed violence, trauma, or exploitation. Children should be able to access specialized mental health services within any system if necessary.

  • Registration and Documentation:  In all cases where unaccompanied and separated children are identified, they must be properly registered and provided with documentation. The registration process is a critical information-gathering process that should also be non-adversarial and the information collected from the minor must be kept confidential for their protection and safety. This means that those who complete the registration and documentation stage should not be personnel who are also tasked with deporting or removing children from the territory. The child’s first contact with enforcement agencies can be traumatic and the child may have extraordinary fear based on prior experiences or what they have been told by others in their country of origin or during the journey.

  • Family Tracing and Reunification: During the registration and documentation stage, the family tracing process must begin. This means obtaining information from the child to initiate the process and also, very importantly, obtaining consent from the child to contact the International Committee for the Red Cross or any other family tracing organization or system available for assistance in the process. It is critical that this information not be used for purposes of enforcement against the parents or other caregivers of the child. Children may be reluctant to provide information about their families because of reasons such as fear of reprisal, coaching to stay silent, or belief in the possibility of resettlement, special benefits, or refugee status in a country as an unaccompanied child. There should be careful consideration in the family tracing process of these factors and a way to ensure safe reunification with the family based upon an analysis of the child’s best interests- whether the family reunification is occurring as a release into the country of asylum, camp setting, repatriation, or not at all. Additional information and guidance is described in more detail below.

  • Access to refugee status determination procedures and complementary forms of protection: As systems of detention proliferate, it becomes more difficult for children to access refugee status determination procedures as well as possible complementary forms of protection. Expedited removal systems, placement of unaccompanied and separated children in adult detention centers, and other similar procedures can mean that children will not be able to access refugee status determination and other complementary forms of protection, and are summarily deported. Practitioners should work with government and quasi-government agencies to gain access to places where children may be held as a result of these procedures to ensure that unaccompanied and separated children are not deprived of their rights in contravention of the CRC and the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Optional Protocol.

Refugee Status Determination

There are numerous guidelines that have been issued by UNHCR, Save the Children, International Committee for the Red Cross, other international organizations, and country-specific guidelines on refugee status determination for children. However, there is a constant struggle in connecting the ideals promulgated in these instruments with the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Optional Protocol and the normative and legal framework of the CRC. The Cartagena Declaration and Organization on African Unity Convention both provide a broader concept of asylum that benefits unaccompanied and separated children. In this way, there are positive jurisprudential developments where these regional instruments are used in the analysis of children’s asylum claims.

  • Best Interest of the Child: UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusion No. 38 “Refugee Children” (1987) stresses that all action taken on behalf of refugee children must be guided by the principle of the best interests of the child. The UNHCR Guidelines on Best Interest Determination provides the most comprehensive outline and implementation of this key principle. The most recent Guidelines on International Protection on Child Asylum Claims similarly cite this key principle. In 2013, UNHCR published an audit of and recommendations for the U.K. Home Office in which they reviewed the application of the best interest of the child in the context of families seeking asylum. UNHCR found that, with some exceptions, children who are dependent on their parent’s claims do not consistently have their own protection needs identified and assessed. See the 2021 UNHCR Best Interests Procedure Guidelines: Assessing and Determining the Best Interests of the Child.

  • Establishing a Well-Founded Fear: There is debate regarding the balance between the subjective and objective elements while the standard of reasonableness is noncontroversial. UNHCR and legal scholars have recognized that children may not be able to articulate subjective fear and adjudicators may need to rely more heavily on objective evidence. The application of this balance will depend upon the child’s maturity, capacity, understanding and developmental stage. Additionally, it may sometimes be difficult to identify sufficient objective evidence to make the determination of well-foundedness of future persecution. If an unaccompanied or separated child can still not meet this standard of well-foundedness on future persecution, practitioners can advocate for a broader humanitarian principle of asylum based on past persecution alone if there are compelling reasons why the child is unwilling to return or there is a reasonable possibility that the child may suffer other serious harm upon return.

  • Credibility Determinations and Submission of Proof: Generally, the standard for credibility determinations is that the information is coherent and plausible. In the case of children, guidelines call for a liberal application of benefit of the doubt. Additionally, psychologists have indicated that asylum seekers generally may have difficulty recounting their story and incomplete versions should not be misinterpreted as detracting from credibility. Children may express experiences of abuse and exploitation in ways that are non-verbal. Children may have proof in the form of physical and psychological impact, but may not be able to provide other types of evidentiary proof and this also should not detract from their case.

  • Persecution: The adjudicator should consider persecution from the child’s point of view and through the normative and legal framework applicable to children. Taking into consideration the child’s point of view would mean that the harm a child suffers or fears may be less than an adult but still qualify as persecution. Additionally, the specific developmental, psychological and neurobiological stage of the child can impact this analysis. Under the CRC, children are entitled to a range of child-specific rights that recognize their young age and dependency and are fundamental to their development and survival. A violation of any one of these rights could constitute persecution or if there are serious systematic or multiple violations of rights or a collection of harmful events, these taken together can constitute persecution. The UNHCR Guidelines on Children’s Asylum Claims released in December 2009 references child-specific forms of persecution such as under-age recruitment, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, child trafficking and labor, and violations of social, economic and cultural rights.

  • Source or Agent of Persecution: Generally, the source or agent of persecution can be the government, a quasi-official government group, or persons, groups or organizations that the government is unwilling or unable to control. In the case of children, it is more common that non-state actors have inflicted persecution. This can often occur, for instance, in intra-family abuse, blood feuds, and gang-based violence. UNHCR guidelines indicate that in the cases where the alleged persecutor is not the government itself, the child can show that the government is unwilling or unable to control his persecutor. There should be a broad flexible framework in analyzing government unwillingness or inability to control that can include the absence of child welfare services, failure of states to intervene to protect, failure to effectively implement a protective law, and objective evidence of high rates of harms to children or patterns of persecution.

  • On Account of One of the Protected Grounds: While children asylum seekers must establish persecution on one of the five grounds, a child may not always be able to establish direct or circumstantial evidence of motive, particularly for culturally accepted – but harmful- practices. The new UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection: Child Asylum Claims, released in December 2009, indicate that it is sufficient that one of five grounds be a factor relevant to persecution, but it is not necessary that it is the sole or dominant cause. 

    • Race: Race should be understood in the widest sense to include all kinds of ethnic groups referred to as races. Persecution based on race is irrespective of minority or majority status in society.

    • Nationality: Nationality includes citizenship membership in an ethnic or linguistic group. Persecution based on nationality is irrespective of minority or majority status in society.

    • Religion: Religion can be based upon belief or refusal to hold beliefs. UNHCR advises that a child need not know or understand anything about the religion only that others have identified her/him as belonging to that group and fears persecution as a result. The UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection No. 6: Religion-Based Refugee Claims also explain that claims can be based on religion as belief (including non-belief), identity, or a way of life, and are not limited to traditional religions.

    • Political opinion: In the UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection No. 1: Gender Related Persecution, UNHCR states that political opinion should be understood broadly to include any opinion on any matter in which the machinery of state, government, society, or policy may be engaged. It can be stated as opposition or neutrality and imputed to children by virtue of their relationship and dependency on family. Given this broad understanding of political opinion, children can manifest political opinions in a traditional political context, but also in response to culturally harmful practices, gender or other societal structured-roles, irregular armed groups and gangs.

    • Membership in a particular social group: UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection No. 2: Particular Social Group, provide for alternative approaches to the analysis such that a particular social group can be a group of persons who share a common characteristic other than their risk of being persecuted, or who are perceived as a group by society.  The characteristic will often be one which is innate, unchangeable, or which is otherwise fundamental to identity, conscience or the exercise of one’s human rights. UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection on Child Asylum Claims also note that being a child can be an immutable characteristic at any given time particularly given the fact that the consequences of having belonged to such a social group does not end. These guidelines also describe possible social groups as including children, abandoned children, orphans, children born outside coercive family practices, street children, children with HIV/AIDS, and children singled out for recruitment or use by an armed force or group.

  • Internal relocation or fundamental change in circumstances: UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection: “Internal Flight or Relocation Alternative within the context of the Article 1(A)2 of the 1951 Convention and/or 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, indicate that there must be regard for the personal circumstances of the individual claimant and the conditions in the country for which the internal flight or relocation alternative is proposed. UNHCR Guidelines on Child Asylum Claims indicate that the child’s best interests inform both the relevance and reasonableness of internal flight or relocation.

  • Exclusion: Exclusion clauses should be restrictively applied to children and in cases of young children, not at all. The best interest of the child, mens rea, mental competency, presence of duress, coercion, or self-defense, and proportionality are guiding principles in the analysis of exclusion for children.

Complementary Forms of Protection

In the case of unaccompanied and separated children, there may be complementary forms of protection that can ensure safety and security to the child. For instance, in the United States, unaccompanied and separated children may be eligible for special immigrant juvenile status based upon abuse, abandonment, neglect or another similar basis under the laws of any state in the United States. These complementary forms of protection can occur in the form of youth welfare legislation, specialized protections for victims of trafficking and slavery, protections under other conventions, such as the convention against torture, and broader humanitarian categories of protection often based on the best interests of the child.


Durable Solutions and Safe Repatriation

Following the continuum of asylum access and recognition for unaccompanied and separated children, durable solutions are an integral part of the best interest and CRC framework. The best interest of the child should be the basis for analyzing the most appropriate durable solution. Possible durable solutions for unaccompanied and separated children include local integration, voluntary or safe repatriation, and resettlement.

  • Local Integration: For unaccompanied and separated children who remain in the country of reception, local integration includes ensuring that these children have non-discriminatory access to education, housing and food, among other key rights, to ensure long-term security, safety and well-being. Many systems utilize the existing child welfare framework, such as foster care networks, to ensure safety and stability of the newly arrived or newly recognized unaccompanied and separated child asylee. While many systems are designed to support the unaccompanied and separated child in a local integration strategy until the age of eighteen, there should be provisions for continued assistance for certain children up until the age of twenty-one.

  • Resettlement: Resettlement of unaccompanied and separated children is a complex process that requires a full best interest determination procedure in accordance with the most recently released UNHCR Guidelines on Best Interest Determination.

  • Repatriation: Finally, and perhaps the most difficult, is the repatriation of unaccompanied and separated children to their countries of origin. There have been full-scale programs of voluntary repatriation of refugee populations conducted by international organizations that have included unaccompanied and separated children. However, there is discretion within these programs to refrain from repatriating certain vulnerable persons, including children, particularly when this would be contrary to the best interest of the child. There are also countries across the world that “repatriate” children, but in practice, this means a deportation system without ensuring safe repatriation. According to UNCHR Guidelines on Policies and Procedures in Dealing with Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum (1997), the best interests of an unaccompanied child require that the child not be returned unless, prior to the return, a suitable care-giver such as a parent, other relative, other adult care-taker, a government agency, a child-care agency in the country of origin has agreed, and is able to take responsibility for the child and provide him/her with appropriate protection and care. The best interest analysis includes considering the developmental needs of the child, the child’s point of view, safe environment and risk of harm, permanency, well-being, assessment of the child’s age and maturity, and history of flight or persecution. However, to be truly effective, the repatriation process for unaccompanied and separated children must also look to reintegration to ensure that the child is a sustainable safety situation or the child will likely flee once again.

  • In the European Union, the European Platform for the Return of Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM) raised a number of legal, political and moral concerns related to the return of children to questionable and possibly dangerous environments. The Coventry Law Centre received funding to conduct research on the ERPUM and launched a website with resource links and reports, however the project was discontinued in June 2014.  The United States does not have any system similar to ERPUM.  However, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008 required that the Secretary of State negotiate agreements for the repatriation of children from contiguous countries designed to protect children from severe forms of trafficking in persons and to create a pilot program to develop and implement best practices to ensure the safe and sustainable repatriation and reintegration of unaccompanied children from all other countries to their country of nationality or of last habitual residence. 

Family Assessment, Tracing, Verification, Reunification, and Follow-Up Support

When authorities and non-governmental organizations first encounter an unaccompanied and separated child, it is critical to assess in a child-sensitive confidential manner the child’s family structure, location of parents or traditional caregivers, if known, and nature of the relationship between the child and parents or traditional caregivers.  The information should be registered and documented appropriately and in accordance with international guidance and standards as highlighted by the Better Care Network. In addition, such assessments must incorporate different cultural and societal conceptions of family. 

In some situations, the child may be reluctant to share information regarding parents or caregivers, particularly when in the custody of government authorities, fearing that this may lead to adverse consequences for their parents or caregivers.  It may also be traumatic for the child to disclose the nature of separation from the parent if it occurred in the context of war, civil conflict, natural disaster, arrest by government authorities, and other similar events.  Finally, it may also be difficult for the child to discuss a parent or caregiver if there has been a history of abuse, abandonment, neglect or other similar mistreatment.  There are also children who will be unable, due to their age, to answer these questions and there are specific guidelines for children from birth to age five. For all of these reasons, it is critical that the child provide informed consent in a confidential manner and that information gathered must not be used against the child in any way contrary to their best interests.  For family tracing with organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, the child must provide consent to the family tracing process.

Throughout this process, the guiding principles should be to promote and ensure the child’s protection, safety, well-being, and best interests.  Children may need to be placed in temporary safe alternative care arrangements during the process of tracing, verification, and family reunification.  It should be recognized that a child should be placed in the least restrictive setting for such temporary arrangements and that this should not become an institutionalized system for the care of children. Such institutionalization has been generally deemed to be contrary to children’s best interests. Additionally, consideration should be made of children who have acquired legal status based on a grant of asylum or refugee protection or alternative forms of humanitarian protection or birthright citizenship.  Finally, the best interest determination guidelines should also be utilized when determining whether a child is not going to be reunified with a parent or caregiver for protection-related reasons. 

Canadian Council for Refugees DNA Tests: A barrier to speedy family reunification, October 2011

Journal of International Migration and Integration DNA Testing for Family Reunification in Canada: Points to Consider, May 2016

ARC Toolkit

Unaccompanied and Separated Children, Family Tracing. Tool 38,  https://www.iom.int/sites/g/files/tmzbdl486/files/TOOLS-WEB-2017-0322.pdf 

When the child so wishes, tracing should be available to all separated children to enable reunification with parents, other close relatives, or primary legal or customary caregivers. All those engaged in tracing should use the same approach, with standardised forms and mutually compatible systems.
Tool 38 of The Child Care Toolkit for Emergency and Post Emergency Response (ACE Toolkit) provides guidance on methods of tracing. This sample form is part of the tools and guidance in the ACE Toolkit designed to facilitate the process of planning for and implementing interim care and related services for children separated from or unable to live with their families during an emergency. The Toolkit includes the following 3 resources: Summary Guidance, Extended Guidance, and a range of tools to assist in the implementation of quality care.

Better Care Network

Registration, Documentation and Tracing

This page provides links to literature that includes procedural guidance and documentation forms for registering and tracing children and parents, as well as descriptions of documentation and tracing programs.

Unaccompanied Children on the Move

IOM, 2011 


This document aims to provide an overview of the scope of activities of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in relation to the protection of unaccompanied migrant children and support for this group. It significantly draws on IOM’s operational data and programmatic information, collected through internal knowledge management tools; at the same time, this information is supplemented by a mapping of the activities of IOM Field Offices covering the period 2009–2011. This paper also benefits from a review of existing international standards and policy frameworks as well as recent research conducted on the topic of unaccompanied migrant children.

Guidelines for Restoring Family Links for Unaccompanied and Separated Children

International Tracing and Messaging Services 


The International Tracing and Message Service (ITMS) of the British Red Cross works to restore contact between family members who have been separated by conflict, disaster or other migration. Through this service, the British Red Cross has regular contact with unaccompanied and separated children who wish to find their family overseas and this Guideline has been developed to ensure that other agencies working in this field are aware of our policies and services.

The Lost Ones: Emergency Care and Family Tracing for Separated Children from Birth to Five Years

UNHCR, 2007


The Lost Ones: Emergency care and family tracing for separated children from birth to five years describes how to care for the youngest children who are separated from their families in emergencies. This working guide also provides information on how parents and humanitarian workers can prevent children from becoming separated during emergencies in the first place. In the event of separation, the guide outlines how to trace the families of separated children and discusses possible care models to meet developmental needs. Finally, it addresses the steps required to verify the relationship between the child and the adult and explains best practices for the reunification of the child with parents or other family members.

Final Report of the UNICEF Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification Pilot Project 

RapidFTR helped humanitarian workers in emergencies quickly collect vital information from children who have been separated from their caregivers, and to share it securely with people who can get them help and find their families. The goal was not to rethink the steps aid workers take in order to reunite families. Instead, RapidFTR focused on streamlining and speeding up a process that is already in place.

Justice for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children: An Advocacy Best Practices Manual for Legal Service Providers


Released by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC),  Justice for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children: An Advocacy Best Practices Manual for Legal Service Providers , covers a range of topics of interest to advocates representing immigrant children, including:

  • how to customize legal documents for use with child clients,
  • meeting the social services needs of immigrant children,
  • practical approaches to some of the more common ethical and conflict situations that arise in the representation of unaccompanied children.

This manual serves as a useful tool both for legal services providers striving to meet the growing demand for legal services for unaccompanied children, as well as for those pro bono attorneys stepping in to help fill the remaining gaps. The manual is available online for easy access, and includes links to helpful resources throughout.  


Comprehensive Resource Websites

Immigration Advocates Network

Register for free and access a library of resources on unaccompanied and separated children in the United States.

The following three sites provide many of the documents listed below and referenced herein and other key documents, such as country-specific information, relating to children:

‘Children’, RefWorld  Refworld is a UNHCR site which publishes documents related to children, including legal, policy and background information.

Child’s Rights Information Network (CRIN) CRIN is a global network which campaigns for the rights of children as detailed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It focuses on improving government policy and social attitudes over offering charity. The website publishes resources and news as well as initiating campaigns.

The Child Recovery and Reintegration Network A global network that facilitates the sharing of information and research between practitioners working for the recovery and reintegration of children affected by sexual exploitation and trafficking. 

United to End Female Genital Mutilation e-Learning Tool  “United to End Female Genital Mutilation” has created a free online course that offers information and practical advice about female genital mutilation (FGM). Primarily designed for health and asylum service staff working in Europe, the course will also be of use around the world, including women’s organisations and shelters.  The user can choose between two course “streams”: one focusing on asylum and the other focusing on health. Together the two streams are composed of six modules: (1) Introduction to Female Genital Mutilation; (2) FGM, Gender Identity, Roles and Power Dynamics in the Context of Migration; (3) The Consequences of FGM on Women’s Health; (4) FGM as Ground for International Protection; (5) The Health Context: Communication Techniques in Supporting Women Affected by FGM; (6) The Asylum Context: Communication and Interviewing Techniques.

Each module contains further readings and resources hyperlinked to the page. A short quiz is offered after each module to ensure that the user fully understands the material covered. The modules can stand independently and may be completed in any order, but it is recommended that they be completed in order. 

General Guidelines

Age Determination 


Psychosocial Care


Safe Repatriation 

  • Commissioner for Human Rights: Safe Repatriation and Decisions on Return of Migrant Children Must be Based on Best Interests: 

Articles and Reports


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