Invisible Children

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children

Demographics of Invisibility

Migrant Children

According to the World Bank and International Organization of Migration, the number of transnational migrants has increased rapidly in the last few years, from 191 million in 2005 to 215 million in 2010.  Many of these migrants are children, often traveling without family members and vulnerable to indefinite detention and violence.[i]

In countries with limited economic growth and high indices of rural poverty, families and their children tend to migrate to urban areas looking for better opportunities.  When those conditions are augmented by civil unrest, the level of those migrations can easily outstrip the capacity of urban centers to handle the influx of newcomers.  In such cases, children and young people suffer disproportionately.

In Colombia, years of civil violence have enhanced conditions of poverty in the country’s southern regions, fueled by unequal access to land and farming rights.   As a result, hundreds of thousands have moved from the countryside to Bogotá, and much of the city’s southeastern quadrant is a squatter’s town filled with migrants, and empty of opportunity.  A national study has shown that 98.6% of Colombia’s migrants live below the poverty line, with more than 82% living in extreme poverty.  The income level for Bogotá’s migrants is 27% lower than the average for the city’s lowest quintile.[ii]

This pattern is repeated in countries combining strong urban centers with economically weak rural populations, such as India, where major cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata are magnets for people from the rural areas; Indonesia, where Jakarta draws migrants from across the island of Java; and Kenya, where Nairobi’s slums are packed with emigrants from the countryside. Migration is a symptom of poverty, but it is also a cause, as most families find their urban treks to be fruitless and face the same struggles for survival only in a new context.

Unaccompanied child migrants are at a higher risk for exploitation, abuse and trafficking, and many are drawn into hazardous circumstances owing to their lack of familiarity with their new surroundings and their incipient vulnerability.[iii]  We have seen examples and noted the numbers of children in urban areas living on the streets or scavenging to get by.  Many of those children were born in the countryside and migrated into their current conditions.

Thousands of Afghan boys have trekked across Europe seeking refuge from their country’s violence.  While no one can know the exact number, 4,883 Afghan boys – all separated from parents or guardians - requested asylum in Europe in 2010.  Sweden alone processed 1,693 such requests.  Many of these boys pay smugglers for the trip, but many others make it on foot, traversing mountains, crossing rivers and lakes, and living off the land as they go.  Resources to help them when they stop walking are scarce, and the chances for asylum are dim when requirements in many countries include proof of regular employment and the ability to speak the native language.  Many continue to live on the streets, fearful of deportation.[iv]

When crossing borders without proper documentation, children run the risk of becoming stateless.  In the United States, more than 40,000 unaccompanied children entered the country in a two year period culminating in 2013, most from Central America, but some from as far away as China, Iraq and Nigeria.  Many of them, upon discovery, face deportation to homelands where they often no longer legally exist, lacking entry papers in this country and legal status in their own.[v]  In other cases, children who cross borders with their parents are left alone in a new country when those parents are themselves deported.

The vast numbers of children migrating to the United States has created a humanitarian crisis.  So many are apprehended that authorities are hard pressed to house them, often packing them into cold cells, nicknames hieleras, or “freezers”, without food or medical care until their legal hearings.  Children have reported being harassed, threatened and sexually abused while in detention.[vi]

Stateless children face legal persecution in their new countries and an uncertain status in their old.  Deportation most often thrusts them back to what they fled without any form of support, leaving them to fend for themselves or reunite with whatever family or friends they have left.   Between 2007 and 2010, Human Rights Watch conducted several studies documenting violence by state security forces against unaccompanied migrant and refugee children in Europe.   For many unaccompanied children, some as young as six, arrival in Europe means facing degrading treatment and police detention.

In Ukraine, migrant and asylum-seeking children report beatings and torture during interrogations, including use of electric shocks and detainment with unrelated adults of both sexes.  In Greece, officials, including coast guards, regular police, and port police officers, have subjected unaccompanied migrant children to torture, such as mock executions, routine kicking, and beatings. Officials routinely detain children, including girls as young as ten, often holding them with adults which increases the likelihood of abuse.[vii]   

In Moldova, one of Europe’s lowest-income countries, about one million people have migrated within Europe to find work, many leaving their children behind as “social orphans.”  These children only see their migrant parents once or twice a year at most, and for illegal migrants it is difficult to visit at all.  Meanwhile, the number of children without parental care is growing as parents see emigration as the only option to provide for their children.[viii]

In the United States, thousands of young people under the age of 18 migrate into the country alone each year, journeying by themselves to find parents who have already crossed the border in search of work, seeking their own futures independently, or fleeing sexual abuse or localized violence in their homelands.  The story of Wilmer Villalobos Ortiz, who traveled alone from Honduras to be arrested at the U.S. border, is not unique.  Roughly 23,000 young people have been apprehended and placed in U.S. custody in 2013.  When apprehended, they face deportation without the right to free legal representation.[ix]   Without counsel, most children cannot understand the complex procedures they face and the options open to them.  Too often children with viable amnesty claims are not able to present them and are sent back to uncertain and often perilous fates, where their well-being, and even their lives, may be in danger.[x]

[i] Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011).  Five Years On: A Global Update on Violence Against Children, NGO Advisory Council for Follow-up to the UN Study on Violence Against Children, p. 24.
[ii] Albuja, Sebastian amd Ceballos, Marcela, “Urban Displacement and Migration In Colombia,” 2012, p.10.
[iii] UNICEF, 2012.  State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in Urban World, p. 7.
[iv] Caroline Brothers, “Out of Afghanistan: Incredible Stories of the Boys Who Walked to Europe,”
[vi] “Innocents at the Border: Immigrant Children Need Safety, Shelter and Lawyers”, New York Times, opinion piece, June 16, 2014;
[vii] Human Rights Watch, (2010). Buffeted in the Borderland: The Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Migrants in the Ukraine.; Human Rights Watch, (2009). Lost in transit: Insufficient protection for unaccompanied migrant children at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport. New York: Human Rights Watch.; Human Rights Watch, (2008). Left to survive: Systematic failure to protect unaccompanied migrant children in Greece. New York: Human Rights Watch. ; Human Rights Watch, (2007). Unwelcome responsibilities: Spain’s failure to protect the rights of unaccompanied migrant children in the Canary Islands. New York: Human Rights Watch.. Cited in: Covell, Katherine and Becker, Jo (2011).  Five Years On: A Global Update on Violence Against Children, NGO Advisory Council for Follow-up to the UN Study on Violence Against Children, p. 24.
[ix] Kids in Need of Defense,
[x] Kids in Need of Defense, 2013.  Children Alone.