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close this bookRefugee Emergencies. A Community-Based Approach (UNHCR, 1996, 142 p.)
close this folderPart Two. Refugees at Risk
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentVulnerable Groups, Minorities and Isolated Refugees
View the documentRefugee Children
View the documentUnaccompanied Children
View the documentRefugee Women
View the documentSingle-Parent Households
View the documentThe Elderly
View the documentThe Disabled
View the documentMental Health

Unaccompanied Children


In a refugee situation, unaccompanied children should be the "first among the first" to receive protection and care.

The physical security and well-being of such children may be at serious risk.

Preparedness: The presence of unaccompanied children should be anticipated in all refugee situations. The number of children in this category may represent 2-5% of the total population. In most cases a special programme will need to be set up for unaccompanied children. In the case of mass influxes it is especially important to designate as soon as possible an agency with the necessary child welfare expertise to be responsible for the immediate and longer-term care of unaccompanied children. A system of identification and registration needs to be set up from the outset to ensure that the basic survival needs (shelter, food, water, clothing and health care) are met. Mechanisms for prevention, care, tracing, and family reunification will also need to be planned.

Assisting Unaccompanied Children:
General Objectives

1. prevention of separation
2. saving lives
3. meeting immediate needs
4. identification
5. tracing
6. family reunification
7. interim management
8. long-term care if tracing unsuccessful

Preventing Separation: Programmes should actively seek to prevent the separation of children from their families. Actual and probable causes need to be identified and preventive action taken. Mothers in ill health, single-parent families and families with disabled members for example may need extra support to ensure that basic needs are met In general, the refugees should be encouraged to keep their children with them. This message should be communicated dearly from the outset.

Parents may "abandon" their children if they think that their children will receive better care in a residential centre for unaccompanied children. Such centres therefore should be created only as a last resort with strict criteria for admission and on how long the child will stay before being placed with a foster family.

Causes of Separation: There are many circumstances prior to, during, and after their flight into exile under which refugee children are separated from their families. Different causes of separation have different implications for the care of the child and the potential for family reunion. Action to assist such children must take this into account.

Against parents' will, a child may be:


Accidentally separated from other family members, e.g. during population movements (spontaneous or organized).

Children are sometimes lost in emergencies:

a) due to inadequate or inaccurate hospital records or tagging, and the movement of patients between institutions; and

b) when taken away from apparently dangerous situations by service personnel or volunteers seeking to protect or arrange medical treatment without first finding and informing parents.


Deliberately taken away from parents by other adults/organizations

Run away

Choosing to leave and live apart from their parents without parental consent


Both parents (or legal guardian) and dose adult relatives in "extended" families having died.

With parents' consent, a child may be:


Deserted by parents who have no intention of subsequent reunion (this can include "unwanted" babies)


Placed voluntarily in me care of another adult, or institution, by parents who intend to reclaim him/her eventually.

A child may be entrusted or even abandoned when parents believe that his chances of survival will be improved by being with other people, or when facilities and services are established for unaccompanied children which are significantly better than those otherwise available.


Living apart from parents (alone or with others) with parental consent.

In conflict situations, children may also be:


Enlisted in fighting units with or without their parents' consent, or their own.

Principles for Immediate Care

Guiding Principle:

To promote the best interests of each child. The unique needs and situation of each individual must be considered.

· One focal point (organization/agency) to set policy and coordinate programme.

· A community-based approach. The children are kept in the refugee community. The community at large is involved and responsible for its children.

· A family-based approach. The children are to remain in the refugee community with their own families, foster parents, or other family groupings (e.g. adolescents living independently). Siblings are kept together.

· No adoption.

· No evacuation except when necessary to protect the health and safety of children generally and therefore not organized specifically for unaccompanied children.

· No residential centres (only as a last resort). If necessary temporary shelters can be arranged within the community to meet the most urgent needs for protection and care while awaiting placement with an appropriate family.

· Assistance to unaccompanied children to be at same level as for rest of the refugee population.

· Support to vulnerable families to help meet basic needs and prevent separation.

· Give priority to infants, children under 10 years, the sick and malnourished, child soldiers.

· Disabled children should be included in normal patterns of activities.

· Material assistance to foster families should, if given, be based on an assessment of vulnerability and not as a general incentive to fostering. Assistance can also take the form of community support (e.g. neighbours helping with daily tasks, child minding, moral support from community/social workers monitoring the family, etc).

· All children to be documented as soon as possible to facilitate tracing.

· Tracing to begin immediately (as soon as the child has been identified as unaccompanied).

· No family reunification without verification.

· Foster families should be encouraged to repatriate with children in their care.

· Repatriate groups together (e.g. adolescents living independently, siblings).

· Action should not be taken without consideration of the long-term implications for the child.

Priority Activities*

* adapted from "Assisting in emergencies. A resource handbook for UNICEF field staff", UNICEF, 1986), p. 399.

1. Set up mechanisms for the identification and registration of unaccompanied children:

· communication network including key people (who are resourceful, accepted by everyone in community, with access to all groups of persons, particularly women, and having knowledge of refugee and local languages)

· lost and found posts within refugee community and on routes of population movement

· outreach to locate unaccompanied children within the community (house-to-house visiting, hospitals and clinics, feeding centres)

· standardization of registration procedures

2. If children are not being cared for by a family, arrange to provide shelter, food and medical care for unaccompanied children, in simple community-level "emergency care" centres (small family-sized units within the refugee community) pending placement with foster families:

· basic standards of care should be the same as for rest of the community.
· group children in a culturally appropriate manner.
· establish links with food distribution centres to ensure cards for rations.
· establish a referral system with the health and nutrition sectors.
· ensure minimum registration (if not already completed).

3. Provide support, where necessary, to families already caring for unaccompanied children to enable them to continue to do so.

4. Initiate tracing immediately through community channels/communication network.

5. Find and screen families in the community willing to foster unaccompanied children:

· find out which adults would normally care for children separated from their parents

· find out what are the traditional methods for caring for unaccompanied children

· establish criteria for foster families (e.g. no exploitation, no sexual abuse, no military recruitment, equality of treatment with other children)

· consult with refugee community for other criteria (e.g. known by neighbours to have a good character; does not have disputes within the family or with neighbours)

· identify women who are breastfeeding and would be willing to act as wet-nurses.

6. Set up mechanisms for placement of children in interim care (foster families, independent living for adolescents, residential centres if these absolutely cannot be avoided) appropriate to his/her needs:

· document the placement and subsequent movements
· fostering agreements
· draw up standards for protection and care in centres
· follow up/monitoring by social/community workers.

7. For each and every child ensure that:

· immediate care and supervision is provided

· as much information as possible is gathered on his/her background and the circumstances of the separation from his/her family;

· medical and psychological screening

· tracing efforts are initiated to find and reunite the child with his/her family wherever possible.

Simultaneous Action is Needed to:

· prevent further separations

· confirm and publicize policies and provisions for unaccompanied children including responsibilities for protecting their interests and supervising arrangements for their care

· mobilize available child welfare expertise and train other workers/volunteers

· remove barriers (e.g. administrative, political) to family reunion where necessary and possible.

Identification: Unaccompanied children must be identified as soon as possible. The first source of information is the refugees themselves and the community leaders. Active efforts to identify unaccompanied children should be made, through a process of registration, house-to-house visiting, creation of lost and found posts. Places should be designated/established where:

· parents who have lost children can register enquiries

· members of all communities can report unaccompanied children for whom they are caring

· young unaccompanied children can be brought by people who find them but are unable to care for them

· older unaccompanied children can present themselves.

Unaccompanied children are also likely to be found in hospitals and clinics, feeding centres and orphanages.

Registration and Documentation: Time lost before interviewing the child is also information lost; particularly about the circumstances of a family separation which has taken place recently. As soon as identified, unaccompanied children should be specially registered. (During general registration exercises, unaccompanied children should be registered separately but cross-referenced to the family with whom they are staying.) The information required will depend on the circumstances. At a minimum note the child's name and location.

Circumstances permitting, the following steps must be taken as soon as possible:

· ask the child if he/she knows where the family is with whom he/she has been living (parents may be temporarily absent of the child may be sent by a parent merely to receive extra food)

· if possible, go with the child to the place where he/she was found and attempt to negotiate the continuation of assistance by the previous care-giver

· interview of the adult care-taker, and older siblings if any

· record made of all information available concerning the child's circumstances (including exactly where and when the child was found) from those who either brought the child forward, or with whom the child was found (this is especially important for infants and very young children)

· give the child a coded identification bracelet (enter the code/reference on the registration form immediately)

· make sure that appropriate care arrangements have been taken for the child

· have the child photographed with a small board on which at least his assigned reference number is clearly marked. Use a camera and film from which subsequent copies can be made for tracing purposes. If feasible, also take an "instant" picture to put into the file immediately.

The identification and registration process must be carried out carefully in order to avoid caretaker families abandoning children, or hiding children for fear that they may be taken away.

Legal Status: Legal responsibility for unaccompanied children rests with the government of the country of asylum. UNHCR however has the obligation to ensure that the High Commissioner's policies are enforced.

A legal guardian should be appointed to act in loco parentis for the unaccompanied child. In situations where refugee status is individually determined, special procedures must be instituted to safeguard the rights and best interests of the child (for details see "Refugee Children, Guidelines on Protection and Care", UNHCR, Geneva, 1994, pp. 100-101).

Tracing: As soon as unaccompanied children are identified, efforts must start to trace their parents or families, and ensure family reunion. One agency/organization should act as focal point for tracing activities to ensure common aims and procedures. Where feasible, tracing should be coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Even for unaccompanied children who report that their parents are dead efforts should be made to trace family members. In such cases it is possible that at least one parent is still alive. There is also the possibility of locating other family members or adults who may have more information about the parents, or who may be willing to care for the child.

The enquiring party, as well as the child, should be informed of progress made in tracing efforts. However, the asking of questions and the circulation of information must not endanger the child or the family. The potential benefits of tracing must always be weighed against the risks that the process could impose on the child and the family. The political context or the otherwise potentially dangerous circumstances of the situation should not be underestimated in the overall effort to reunite children with their families.

Verification: When the parents/family of a child have been traced and a child is claimed, the claim must be verified. Before bringing the adults and children together, photographs, descriptions, accounts of events and family composition need to be compared.

Family Reunion: The assistance and support of a social worker should be made available to facilitate the child's re-integration into me family. The length and causes of separation will be key factors in this process. Each case must be carefully assessed to determine what is in the best interests of the child. If family members are located in the country of origin and it is not possible for the child to rejoin them, the child should be assisted to maintain communication with them. In some situations the ICRC will be able to help with this.


based in community

information from child
information from community

immediate community
in other camps
in other parts of the country

Family Reunification

If the activity starts early enough, inter-country tracing may not be necessary.

Organizing Care: Where there are considerable numbers of unaccompanied children, the establishment by UNHCR of a special unit for their care is recommended. The assistance of the appropriate national authority, UNICEF and qualified NGOs should be sought.

The best child care workers are likely to be respected adults within the refugee community, for example older parents with child-rearing experience. Child care workers must be properly supervised, and supported with training programmes. Unaccompanied young women can be recruited as assistant child-care workers, thus giving them useful work as well as some measure of security.

Where outside assistance is required, the criterion must be competence to manage the specialized services needed. Any organization involved by UNHCR in the care of unaccompanied children must be in agreement with the principles and policies of the Office and not have conflicting objectives, such as adoption, resettlement or religious conversion.

Programmes for the care of unaccompanied children must be carefully co-ordinated with all involved to ensure common aims and standards.

One of the most important principles of the care of any child is that relationships must be stable. Unaccompanied children will develop very close bonds with other children and adults. Development and maintenance of a strong bond with the person looking after the child is of crucial. Thus continuity of the arrangements and personnel involved in their care is fundamental.

Family-based Care: Foster care in the emergency phase is considered as care by a family outside the normal culturally accepted family structures, on an interim basis, pending family tracing and reunification. The care of unaccompanied children should be undertaken, as far as possible, by persons of the same ethnic and social background as the children in order to ensure cultural and linguistic continuity. Refugee foster families therefore should be preferred to local families. If possible, in anticipation of voluntary repatriation (families are encouraged to repatriate with the foster child in their care), the foster family should also come from the same area of origin and intended area of return as me child. Every effort should be made to place the child (or children in the case of siblings) with an appropriate and caring foster family within the refugee community. Compatibility of the child with the foster family should be kept in mind when making placements. Ethnic differences should be borne in mind, but should not become an issue when placing children of mixed marriages. However, staff should be ready to respond to problem case together with the Protection Officer. Careful account should also be taken of cultural attitudes towards fostering. For instance, in some cultures the family may take in a child, but only as a servant.

Before placing children in foster care, the following conditions must be fully satisfied:

· The community where the foster families reside must be sufficiently secure and stable to ensure that the child and family can live in safety and that regular monitoring of the child is possible.

· Before a child is placed with a family, the organization responsible for the care of the child screens the family with regard to their willingness and capacity to provide an adequate level of care and nurture for the child; information about the prospective foster family should be gathered through reliable community networks, religious associations.

· The child is registered (using the ICRC documentation form) before any placement is made.

· The foster placement is formalised with a written agreement (UNHCR form, annex 9), signed by the head of the foster family, agreeing to provide care for the child as a member of the family under the supervision of the organization responsible for the child and to return the child on request of that organization in the event that this is determined to be in the child's best interests (i.e. for family reunion, or if care is judged to be inadequate).

· The written agreement also states what assistance, if any, the foster family is to receive.

· The organization responsible for the child monitors the child's well-being at least every two weeks. The follow-up must be strict and should include monitoring of health and nutritional status of the child. The organization must have sufficient resources to provide regular and competent medical check-ups of the children. Psychological well-being should be monitored regularly by a social worker.

Where an unaccompanied child is living voluntarily with a family or an adult not related to her/him and the child's needs are being met adequately, the relationship should be respected.

It merits repeating, however that unaccompanied children living with other families should still be identified and documented, and the quality of their care arrangements should be assessed. This process must be done carefully in order to avoid disrupting the care relationship or encouraging care-taker families to abandon or hide the presence of such children."

Special attention should be given to situations in which children are found to be abused, exploited or neglected, and appropriate alternative arrangements made for them.

(source: Refugee Children, Guidelines on Protection and Care, UNHCR, Geneva, 1994)


Arrangements for adolescents should be made on a case-by-case basis, seeking the solution that provides most stability. Most adolescents will probably choose the option of living in groups. Unless they are related it is advisable to separate boys and girls. These groups should be followed up by the community monitoring system. It is further advisable that they choose an adult who will take responsibility for them in addition to the community monitoring system.


Feeding is an important aspect of caring for unaccompanied infants and young children. Exclusive breastfeeding remains the safest and most adequate way of feeding young infants under 6 months of age even if they are separated from their own mother. Continued breastfeeding after 6 months is an important source of high quality nutrients in times when the diet is marginal. Breastfeeding also continues to protect the child from disease.

Where a child's own mother is not available an infant can be fed by a surrogate mother. This is called wet-nursing. A wet-nurse can be a mother who is breastfeeding her own child. She may also be a mother who has just lost her own child. Or, she may be a woman who is not breast-feeding, but who is ready to let the infant suckle at her breast, and establish a milk supply. This is called relactation.

Care should be taken in the selection of a wet-nurse. If possible, she should be screened for HIV. However, where screening is not possible, the risk of feeding the infant with infant formula should be weighed against the risk of the infant acquiring HIV by a potentially infected woman. Where it is unlikely that infant formula can be prepared hygienically and safely, and where the prevalence of HIV is low, breastfeeding will normally be the preferred mode of infant feeding.

Care within the Community: Every community has its own mechanisms (regulated by its beliefs, social values, customs, traditions and preferences) which determine how problems are solved. A community-based approach seeks to enhance and improve existing "coping mechanisms" which may include: family relationships, mutual assistance among neighbours, local social and economic organizations, community leaders, religious institutions/practices/leaders.

Apart from the families fostering children, the refugee community at large needs to be involved and made responsible for its children. The refugee community network (communication/dissemination of messages and information) will be vital to identification and tracing efforts. Refugees can be trained as community workers for outreach activities (searching for and identifying unaccompanied children, supervising and mediating with the foster families). Training and orientation of teachers should also be undertaken. The wider community also has a role to play in monitoring the well-being of unaccompanied children. Fully integrated into the community, the children will benefit from programmes and activities organized for all refugee children (e.g. schooling, games, sports, religious practices).

Residential Care

Fostering in refugee families is the preferred option. Residential care should only be considered as a last resort.

Where special residential centres are required, small units of five to eight children are preferable with the numbers of house-parents being determined in the light of the ages and particular needs of the children. These centres should be integrated in the refugee community but must be carefully supervised. Large centres should be avoided. Apart from the likelihood that individual attention will suffer in large centres which cannot provide adequately for the child's developmental needs, experience has shown that there is a tendency to provide special services unavailable elsewhere. This can actually attract children who are not unaccompanied.

Siblings should live together. In certain circumstances unaccompanied children may have been living together as a group and have close emotional bonds with the group. It may be in the interests of the children to preserve such groupings, or relationships within them, where possible, while at the same time establishing a substitute parent relationship.

Standards for such centres need to be drawn up covering all aspects of protection and care to be provided

Tracing Methods

The method(s) chosen will depend on the nature of the refugee situation. Some methods that have been used include:

Spontaneous Tracing

Parents actively go out and search for their children. This can be extremely effective in the immediate weeks following separation, especially when separation occurs locally.

Red Cross Messages

Spontaneous tracing is facilitated by parents or children sending messages via the ICRC to places where they think their children/parents are.

Case-by-Case Tracing

NGOs, other agencies, including governments go out to do tracing for individual children. This method is time consuming, labour intensive and demanding of transport.


This has produced excellent results in some contexts. One of the simplest and most effective methods has proved to be the posting of photographs which contain the child's reference number, on special bulletin boards, for example in community centres, for public view. Also, data sheets, including photographs, can be reproduced, bound into volumes and circulated among the refugees. Certain NGOs have acquired considerable experience in implementing such programmes.

Computer Matching

Tracing requests are completed by parents or relatives. These are entered into a database and checked against children registered. Where a match is found and verified, reunification can be arranged.

Media Tracing

Use of television, radio and newspapers to advertise tracing programmes, and to advertise information about particular children.

Baby Tracing

Mothers who have lost babies have been transported to centres to try to identify their babies. Photo-tracing is also used for this group.

Mass Tracing

Using the information base of all children separated from their families, whether in the country of origin or exile, lists are produced by local area of origin. These lists together with photographs are read out/displayed at public meetings, gathering places, etc.

Family Mediation

Families sometimes abandon their children in the expectation that they will receive better care. When such children are identified community workers must mediate with the family to persuade them to take the child back into the family.

Check List

Have all unaccompanied children been identified, registered and documented? Have families who are missing children registered details of the child?

Are there single-parent households headed by men with children below the age of five years of age? Who is looking after these children?

Are other single-parents able to cope with the situation? If not, is there anyone in the community able to help?

Are there culturally appropriate facilities to identify and assist traumatized children?

Have steps been taken to ensure appropriate care arrangements for unaccompanied children?

Which adults would normally care for children separated from their parents?

What are the traditional methods of caring for unaccompanied children?

If the traditional patterns have been disrupted, what do the community and religious leaders, educators, and child care workers or local groups have to say about how such children should be handled?

Are there, or could there be, qualified groups or individuals within the community prepared to care for the children?

Are there any concerned adults caring for children who are not their own? If this is the case, can such care be maintained and supported? Have the children been registered and documented? Has a foster agreement been signed?

What is being done to improve the psycho-social environment of refugee children: (a) schooling; (b) organized play; (c) support of families in special need?

What measures have been taken to identify unaccompanied children? (Outreach, registration offices, lost and found posts, feeding centres, hospitals, etc.)

What mechanism has been put in place for tracing family members of unaccompanied children?

What steps have been taken to preserve the confidentiality of the information provided by the child?

If family members have been traced, have their claims been verified (by photographs, comparison of descriptions and accounts of events)?

What measures have been taken to support and facilitate the child's re-integration into his family?

If family members have been located, but it is not possible for the child to join them, is the child being assisted to maintain communication with them?