Most of the children arriving in Greece by sea are from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq | Credit: Gordon Welters / UNHCR
Most of the children arriving in Greece by sea are from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq | Credit: Gordon Welters / UNHCR

More children are displaced from their homes worldwide than at any time since WWII, UNICEF has said. The agency has urged governments to boost efforts to protect and support all child refugees and migrants.

At the end of 2021, 36.5 million children had been forced to flee their homes by conflict, violence and other crises, the UN children's agency UNICEF has announced.

The figure, the highest since World War II, includes 13.7 million refugee and asylum-seeking children and nearly 22.8 million children displaced within their own countries. In May, the charity Save the Children estimated the number of internally displaced children at over 25 million.

"We can’t ignore the evidence: The number of children being displaced by conflict and crises is rapidly growing – and so is our responsibility to reach them," said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. She urged governments to ensure that displaced children are guaranteed access to education, protection, and receive support for their wellbeing and development.

Read more: Mavrovouni camp, Lesbos: No place to welcome a newborn

Conflicts and instability increased numbers

UNICEF said the record number was a direct result of conflicts such as in Afghanistan and fragile situations in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The figure dates from before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has caused more than 2 million children to flee the country and displaced 3 million children internally.

In addition to those displaced by war and conflict, there were a further 7.3 million children displaced in 2021 as a consequence of extreme weather events such as drought in the Horn of Africa and flooding in India, Bangladesh and South Africa.

Worldwide, the number of displaced people has more than doubled in the last decade. Children make up almost half the total, according to UNICEF. Over one third of displaced children (3.9 million or 36%) live in sub-Saharan Africa, while in the Middle East and North Africa there are 1.4 million (13%). Around a quarter live in Europe and Central Asia.

Access to education, healthcare

Access to essential support and services like healthcare, education and protection is falling short as the number of displaced children rises, UNICEF says. 

Only around one-third of all adolescent refugees were enrolled in school and about two-thirds of primary school-aged children were accessing education.

UNICEF also highlights the dangers faced by all children who have been uprooted from their homes, but especially by unaccompanied and separated children, to trafficking, exploitation, violence and abuse. Around 34% of known victims of trafficking globally are children, according to the agency.

Governments should act to ensure that refugee, migrant and displaced children are recognized "as children first and foremost," the agency said in a press release ahead of World Refugee Day on Monday, June 20. It also called on countries to "end harmful border management practices and child immigration detention."


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