Thursday, March 31, 2011

‘Invisible’ Children of the Caribbean: Child Migrants fall through the Cracks of Legal Protection throughout the Region

Ksenia Glebova
[works for UNICEF in Suriname, South America. Ksenia is a freelance journalist and Ph.D student interested in child rights, migration discourse, identity and borders]

The Caribbean is a region of extensive migration with currently the highest percentage of out-migration in the world (i). The region is a source, place of transit en route to the United States or Canada, and final destination for both forced and voluntary migrants coming from within the Caribbean, South and Central America, and more recently also from Africa and Asia.

The percentage of migrant population in the Caribbean states varies greatly from 0.1 in Cuba to 34% in Aruba and 53% in the US Virgin Islands whereas in terms of forced migration, the absolute majority of refugees from the region come from Haiti that over 24,000 persons left in 2010(ii). A total of 40 persons were recognized as convention refugees in the Caribbean itself.(iii) Due to the very low number of persons seeking asylum from the Caribbean, asylum issues are a low priority for most states focusing on migration from the national security perspective.

Caribbean societies were “largely formed through immigration, both forced and free” (iv), as a result of slave trade and colonial relationships, and in the recent decades as a strategy of economic survival. The region is characterized by complex and mixed migratory patterns including asylum seekers, refugees, economic and environmental migrants, and other vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking and unaccompanied minors.

Children (v) are often among the most vulnerable groups in these mobile societies that jeopardize the rights and well being of accompanied and unaccompanied child migrants as well as of children left behind by one or both parents who have migrated. The effects of migration can have a profound impact on the child’s development let alone safety and well being(vi). However, there is still very little research on measuring the impact of migration on families and their children, whether in the Caribbean or worldwide.

The Other Side of the Postcard

Against the postcard image of tropical tourist paradise, children are part of the little-known side of global migration. Migration trends in the Caribbean region are very similar to those of migration by sea routes from North Africa to Southern Europe. Similarly, the Caribbean is transit point for human traffickers and smugglers operating the route to the US and Canada. There is no reliable data on the number of people who perish due to natural hazards en route but every year several hundred men, women and children do not make it to the shore alive. Those who do are facing familiar discrimination and abuse in breach of the Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. Yet the situation in the Caribbean receives far less public attention.

Eleven out of thirteen independent Caribbean states have acceded to the 1951 Geneva Convention, but only the Dominican Republic and Belize have adopted it into national legislation. Similarly, all Caribbean states have ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)(vii) making it legally binding on their territory but its effective implementation is lagging behind. Refugee children have the full rights of children under the CRC and the full rights of refugees under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in the countries that ratified the Convention.

Article 2 of the CRC states that “State parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status”. Therefore, the CRC extends the obligations of the state to protect the rights of all children within its territory, including the rights of migrant children, regardless of their migration status. The “best interests of the child” principle (Article 3) should guide all procedures affecting the child.

However, despite the legal framework protection of child migrants in the Caribbean is more than often only de jure. The global key issues for refugee girls and boys are separation from families and caregivers, sexual exploitation, abuse and violence, access to education and specific concerns of adolescents or young people resonate in the Caribbean, although the absolute majority of migrant children are not forced migrants. In the region, migrant children and especially undocumented children face serious difficulties in securing their access to education and health care, both of which are basic rights guaranteed in the CRC. Even if they secure access to education, there are no special education support programmes tailored to child migrants in this multilingual region, where they may face considerable language challenges in school as do, for example, Guyanese English-speaking children in the Dutch-speaking Caribbean. Birth registration, another basic right enshrined in the CRC, is also problematic, especially for the thousands of Haitian children residing outside their country of origin.

Following the devastating earthquake in January 2010 thousands of Haitians, including unaccompanied children, moved to other Caribbean states that temporarily accepted migrants entering their territory legally and illegally. The island states in closest geographical proximity to Haiti hosted the majority of the migrants. In the Bahamas, the repatriation of Haitians who have entered the country illegally has been put on hold. The government of Dominica extended the stay of all Haitians already on the island for extra six months, regardless of their legal status. However, the Haiti momentum is over and the time has come to guarantee the rights of migrants beyond temporary emergency assistance.

Beyond Safety

Finding safety in the Caribbean is feasible but securing wider child rights, though guaranteed by the Geneva Convention, is more challenging. The asylum systems are weak and underdeveloped and the rates of recognition are uniformly low putting genuine refugees at life-threatening risk of deportation. Especially unaccompanied child migrants in the Caribbean are denied access to legal and practical assistance and at times detained in place of institutional care. Unaccompanied children can be wrongly considered to be adult undocumented migrants, and deported without exercising their right to seek asylum, and without regard for the rights of the child (viii).

The island of Aruba in the Caribbean Sea is a case in point of complex mixed migration, where authorities do not separate between economic migrants and asylum seekers under the Geneva Convention, but only between those who entered the country legally and illegally (ix). Many of those who arrived illegally in Aruba, and other Caribbean islands, may qualify for the Convention status having fled their countries as a result of genuine persecution.

Nevertheless, forced migrants are often taken for economic migrants, detained for illegal entry and promptly deported before they have a chance to submit an application for asylum. Public awareness of the differences between economic migrants and refugees is modest at best, reception facilities do not cater to the needs of migrants who spent weeks at sea, there is no specialised health care. Undocumented child migrants, both forced and voluntary, are consistently among the lowest performing students in schools across the region and have disproportionately high drop out rate (x).

Towards de Facto Child Protection

The discussion on the subject of child migration, both forced and voluntary, in the Caribbean is still relatively new and evolving. Despite their extensive migration experience, the countries in the region do not guarantee even basic protection of the rights of child migrants, let alone in accordance with the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As a result the host governments are failing those often most vulnerable.

The 2010 humanitarian crisis in Haiti demonstrated the capacity of the Caribbean states to respond with extraordinary temporary protection measures as opposed to providing consistent minimum standards of child protection, especially for unaccompanied minors. However, it is precisely the legal and social policy reform that is needed to translate the Convention on the Rights of the Child into national legislation and guarantee rights of all children irrespective of their country of origin and legal status.


i.UN ECLAC (2006) Migration in the Caribbean – What do we know? An overview of data, policies and programmes at the international and regional level to address critical issues.
ii.UNHCR North America and the Caribbean website at
iv.Elizabeth Thomas-Hope (2003) Irregular migration and asylum-seekers in the Caribbean, UNU Wider Discussion Paper no 2003/48.
v.Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a ‘child’ as any human being under the age of 18.
vi.Bakker, C. et al. (2009) Impact of Migration on the Children in the Caribbean, UNICEF Barbados and Eastern Caribbean.
vii.UN (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),
viii.OHCHR (2010) Study of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on challenges and best practices in the implementation of the international framework for the protection of the rights of the child in the context of migration.
x.CRC Committee (2009) Concluding observations on the State Report of the Netherlands, including the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.

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