Minding the gap in data on migrant, refugee and trafficked children

Understanding what data is available about children on the move will help decision-makers better direct resources to them.

March 13, 2018
Sarina Patterson, Jennifer Turner, Jacob Sims
Refugee children from Syria at a clinic in Ramtha, northern Jordan. Photo by Russell Watkins/DFID, licensed under (CC BY 2.0).

Refugee children from Syria at a clinic in Ramtha, northern Jordan. Photo by Russell Watkins/DFID, licensed under (CC BY 2.0).

By the end of 2016, Swedish and French policymakers responding to Europe’s refugee crisis could see from UN records that refugees and displaced persons in their countries numbered 349,303 and 368,687 respectively. But out of these hundreds of thousands of people uprooted from their homes, how many, decision-makers wanted to know, were children?

No one knew—because the data did not exist. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has information on age for only half of the population it is mandated to track, and Sweden and France were in the missing half.

These gaps in data matter. UNICEF estimates that as of 2016 nearly 50 million children had either migrated to another country or were forcibly displaced internally. This group includes some of the most vulnerable people in the world—children fleeing war, famine and poverty, both alone and with their families, and victims of child trafficking. Helping these children on the move requires knowing where they are, what they need, and what resources are currently reaching them. Yet the data currently available are not sufficient to meet even these minimum standards.

To better understand what data is needed for assistance programs targeting refugee, displaced, and trafficked children, and how to improve that data, the Oak Foundation Children on the Move Fund of the Tides Foundation has awarded AidData and the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at UMass Boston a nearly $500,000 grant.

Press Release: AidData/William & Mary awarded two-year grant to study data on refugee and migrant children

Over the two-year project, we’ll work to identify existing data sources, assess barriers posed by missing, fragmented and non-granular information, and consult with key stakeholders on their data use and needs across the U.S. and Europe, and in three country case studies. From this body of evidence, we’ll provide actionable recommendations and best practices for data collection and use that public, private, and civil society leaders can apply nationally and globally.

“Through our work with marginalized groups, we’ve learned that data really does drive decision-making,” said Ashley van Edema, PhD candidate at the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at UMass Boston and a project member. “We’re excited to partner with AidData to help ensure that those advocating on behalf of refugee and migrant children have access to the data they need to improve programs and services for these children on the move.”

The challenge

Massive gaps in data are leaving refugee and migrant children in danger and without access to services, warned the UN and five partner agencies in a call to action last month. UNICEF says the 300,000 unaccompanied child refugees it counted in 2016—a five-fold increase since 2010—are just the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ as many countries do not track this data. These unaccompanied minors are at particular risk of abuse and exploitation: at least 10,000 child refugees went missing in Europe in 2016, but Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, admits it does not know how many have really disappeared, and that the 10,000 figure is likely an underestimation.

These inconsistencies and data gaps stem from failures in the information architecture on multiple levels. In many cases, children are missed altogether in data collection. Data on refugees and migrants tends to be collected only from those people who are officially registered, so unregistered people may not be counted.

Data that is collected is often not disaggregated by age, gender, or travel situation, making it impossible to separate children from the overall population of refugees and migrants, or to identify at a subnational level where these children are located. As children move from place to place, they may be counted multiple times, skewing data.

Finally, even when detailed information is available, it is often significantly out of date, or siloed in different organizations with their own definitions and methods for data collection that are not interoperable.

Moving forward

By understanding where, how, and why these information gaps are occurring and developing targeted solutions, our four-phase project will lay critical groundwork to ensure that decision-makers have the information they need for effective interventions.

First, we’ll review the data that is currently available on refugee and migrant children (both internationally and within countries) and how people are using the data (where they find it, how they use it, what they need from it), and negotiate data-sharing agreements with relevant actors, such as UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Next, we’ll perform an in-depth review of the relevant domestic data sources for three country case studies. This country-level field work will allow us to map existing interventions aimed at meeting the needs of children on the move, and recommend best practices for scaling up data usage internationally.

To translate the data and evidence collected from the country-level and global consultations into specific insights, we’ll then work with an advisory group of key stakeholders to refine recommendations, and publish a brief outlining a proposed framework to enhance inter-agency cooperation, collaboration, and data transparency, align future data collection efforts with global commitments like the SDGs, and improve accountability for interventions.

Finally, we’ll bring our project’s analysis and recommendations to collaborative forums for dissemination, including the International Forum on Migration Statistics, Global Compact meetings, and data working group meetings such as the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and the second UN World Data Forum in the summer of 2018.

Significant information gaps stymie our ability to target limited resources, while further exacerbating the vulnerability of migrant and refugee children. Improving data quality and access and a standardized information architecture will make it easier for decision-makers to gain needed context and respond to the needs of children on the move.

Sarina Patterson is AidData's Communications Manager. 

Jennifer Turner served as a Senior Program Manager at AidData working on sustainable development solutions.

Jacob Sims is Associate Director of the Sustainable Development Intelligence program at AidData.