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3.5 Children and Adolescents at Risk

Submission under this category

To be prioritized for resettlement consideration by UNHCR under this submission category, the child or adolescent:

  • should be under 18; and
  • may or may not be unaccompanied or separated; and
  • has protection needs that are not addressed in the country of asylum, and where required under UNHCR’s Best Interests Procedure Guidelines, a BIA or BID has assessed or determined resettlement to be in the best interests of the child.

Refugee children and adolescents are entitled to special protection and assistance because they are often at greater risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation, trafficking and recruitment into armed groups. Furthermore, displacement may force children and adolescents to take on new roles and responsibilities to meet their own protection needs and those of their family, which can lead to exploitation and abuse as well as harmful coping strategies. They may have specific needs and protection risks that cannot be adequately addressed in the country of asylum, including mental health, physical health or disabilities. Gender non-conforming young people are also at risk.

This submission category is often used in the case of unaccompanied or separated children but is also appropriate when the protection needs of a child or adolescent are the most compelling factors leading to the prioritization of a family or case for resettlement. This submission category can be applied as a secondary submission category to highlight the presence of a child or adolescent at risk within a resettlement case.

Children refers to every person below the age of 18 years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.

Children at risk means those children who are at heightened risk as a result of exposure to risks in the wider protection environment and/or risks resulting from individual circumstances. Children at risk include unaccompanied and separated children (UASC), as well as other children who are at risk of, or have experienced violence, exploitation, abuse or neglect.

Children at risk undergoing a Best Interests Procedure (BIP) are those children who, because of their circumstances, need targeted, structured, systematic, sustained and coordinated support.

Unaccompanied children are children who have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.

Separated children are those separated from both parents or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, but not necessarily from other relatives. These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members.

Orphans are children, both of whose parents are known to be dead.

Adolescents are between the ages of 10-18 years (for the purposes of this resettlement submission category)

Environmental risk factors for children and adolescents in displacement settings can, when combined with individual risk factors, place individuals in situations of increased risk. UNHCR country and field offices are encouraged to use available protection data to support an assessment of local conditions and relevant risk factors to help prioritize children and adolescents for resettlement consideration in a systematic way.

Environmental risk factors include:

  • lack of access to child-sensitive asylum procedures;
  • lack of sustainable solutions;
  • poverty and lack of self-reliance opportunities in the family;
  • child labour, abuse and exploitation;
  • inadequate access to education and health care;
  • disruption of family and community support structures;
  • prevalence of traditional practices that are harmful to children;
  • discrimination, intolerance, xenophobia and gender inequality;
  • lack of birth registration and issuance of birth certificates, and
  • trafficking risks.

Individual risk factors include:

  • girl mothers and their children;
  • unaccompanied and separated children;
  • children accompanied by abusive or exploitative adults;
  • stateless children;
  • child victims of trafficking and sexual abuse or exploitation, including exposure to pornography, paedophilia;
  • survivors of violence and/or torture; including GBV and other forms of abuse and exploitation;
  • child marriage;
  • children at risk of, or associated with, armed forces or groups;
  • children in detention;
  • children who suffer from bullying and social discrimination;
  • children with psychosocial, intellectual, sensory or physical disabilities;
  • children living with or affected by serious diseases;
  • children out of school, and
  • children in conflict with the law.

Resettlement of children undergoing Best Interests Procedure (BIP)

A child in BIP may be referred for resettlement by child protection colleagues/ partners following an assessment or determination that resettlement is in the child’s best interests. This decision is based on the case management history of the child and considers the child’s overall situation. The basis for this decision should be fully documented in the child’s file.

Unaccompanied or separated children who are found in a household being considered for resettlement, or other children identified by resettlement colleagues as being possibly at risk, should be referred to child protection colleagues/ partners to check whether they are being supported through BIP, before proceeding with resettlement.

Best Interests Assessments and Best Interests Determinations

The concept of a child’s best interests comes from The Convention on the Rights of the Child and aims to ensure the full and effective enjoyment of all the rights recognized in the Convention and the holistic development of the child.

Best Interests Assessments (BIA) and Best Interests Determinations (BID) are key protection processes of BIP and should be carried out or supervised by specialized child protection colleagues/ partners. In the resettlement context, a BIA may be conducted out by resettlement caseworkers if they have had the requisite training and are competent in child protection issues and child-friendly interview techniques. This BIA process should, nevertheless, be supervised by colleagues responsible for child protection.

Resettlement SOPs should set out the circumstances in which children require a Best Interests Assessment (BIA) or a Best Interests Determination (BID) before proceeding with resettlement case processing, based on the guidance summarized below and set out in detail in UNHCR’s Best Interests Procedure Guidelines (BIP).

Not all children at risk in the resettlement process require an assessment or determination of their best interests before proceeding with resettlement. For example, a child with a disability, in detention or out of school who is well supported by his or her parents or other legal/customary caregiver does not necessarily require a specific decision-making procedure to decide if resettlement with his or her family is in the child’s best interests. However, for some children at risk, an assessment or a determination as to whether resettlement is in the best interests of the child is necessary before proceeding with resettlement case processing.

Best Interests Assessments (BIA)

What: A BIA supports complex decision-making by UNHCR and child protection partners in relation to a child’s best interests. The BIA form guides an assessment of the protection risks experienced by the child as well as his or her strengths and capacities. In certain circumstances, a BIA can support the assessment of whether resettlement is in a child’s interests.

When: A BIA is required for resettlement in the case of:

  1. Unaccompanied children where resettlement will restore family unity with a parent or previous legal or customary caregiver;
  2. Separated children, irrespective of whether resettlement will serve to restore family unity with a parent or previous legal or customary caregiver;

Note that in certain situations, a BID is required for resettlement of a separated child (see below).

3. Children to be resettled with only one parent, when this parent does not have sole custody, even if the parent not resettling with the child has provided informed written consent or cannot be reached despite tracing efforts.

Note that a BIA is not required if:

(i)          the resettling parent has legal documentation granting sole custody, or

(ii)         proof of the death of the absent parent is available, and there is no person with a custody arrangement over the child other than the parent resettling with the child.

Note that each child’s situation is different. Should any concern or doubt arise about the child’s situation (for instance, the authenticity of the document) or relationship with any of the parents, a BIA can help decide on the appropriate option for the child. In certain situations, a BID is required for children resettling with only one parent (see below).

Who: Resettlement colleagues and partners may carry out BIAs in the resettlement context, where they have had the requisite training and are competent in child protection issues and child-friendly interview techniques. However, since BIA is fundamentally a child protection process, the process should be supervised by colleagues responsible for child protection. BIAs require the participation of the child.

How: All resettlement colleagues should undergo relevant training and be familiar with UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines and Technical Guidance: Child Friendly Procedures as a core part of their resettlement case processing work and protection responsibilities. Best Interests Procedure Micro learning modules are also available. It is best practice for resettlement colleagues to be familiar with the BIA form when conducting a BIA. The form provides structure and helps ensure all relevant considerations are addressed in line with 3.2.3 of UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines. Consider the following recommendations when preparing a BIA:

Where there are previous BIA or BIDs contained in the child’s file, the BIA for resettlement should draw on these previous findings and avoid starting over or reopening issues that have already been addressed and closed.  

  • The BIA should avoid standard paragraphs and instead shed light on the child’s individual story, including any observations and interactions with the parent or caregiver.
  • The BIA should consider all the protection risks and capacities of the child and not only considerations related to resettlement. Children often experience multiple risks at the same time or over time.  
  • If resettlement is assessed to be in the best interests of the child, certain protection needs may require immediate and coordinated action to ensure that child is safe and has access to available services pending the completion of the resettlement process. The BIA should set out a plan of action by which UNHCR and partners intervene to ensure the child’s protection until departure for resettlement.
  • Note that some resettlement countries require a BID for all separated children. While UNHCR only requires a BID for separated children where there is an additional significant risk factor or protection concern, a BID should nonetheless be completed where this is needed to facilitate resettlement based on a resettlement country’s own policy.

Best Interests Determinations (BID)

What: A BID is a more robust procedure with specific safeguards designed to ensure that important decisions affecting the child are guided by the child’s best interests. BIDs should facilitate child participation and balance all relevant factors in order to determine the best option. Where a child has access to national systems in the host country, this determination should be made by a court.

When: Refer to the Durable Solutions Checklist to Determine if a BID is required. A BID is required for resettlement in the case of:

  1. Unaccompanied children where resettlement does not involve family reunification with a parent, or previous legal or customary caregiver;
  2. Separated children in the case of resettlement with a parent or legal / customary caregiver where there are additional significant risk factors or protection concerns (see 4.1.2 of UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines) and/or exceptional situations (see 4.2. of UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines).
  3. Children to be resettled with only one parent, where:
    • the parent not resettling refuses to provide consent for the resettlement of the child, or
    • it has been assessed or observed that the parent not resettling plays an active role in the child’s care and upbringing, or
    • there are indications that the child might be at risk within the family being considered for resettlement.

See Specific considerations relating to custody in the context of resettlement at 4.3.5 UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines.

Who: BIDs are conducted by qualified child protection colleagues/ partners, reviewed by a Reviewing Officer and confirmed by a panel of experts (BID panel). The BID process requires meaningful participation of the child.

How: A BID report form is used and the decision-making and case planning is guided by the four-factor analysis presented in chapter 2.4.2 of UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines.

  • If there has already been a BID carried out for the child, which did not consider resettlement, this should be reopened or updated rather than a fresh BID conducted for resettlement. Re-opening a BID means that a fresh BID report is prepared and submitted to the Panel, with interviews limited to complementing the information already gathered. The new BID report should include information on the previous BID decision, and all documents (old and new BID) included in the child’s file.
  • The BID should be a holistic and coherent assessment of the child’s situation and a comprehensive analysis of the different possibilities and options available in terms of solutions. It should not presume that resettlement is the best solution for the child, or the only intervention required, and should duly consider all relevant factors before reaching a determination.
  • Where resettlement is determined to be in the child’s best interest, the BID must include a plan of action by which UNHCR and partners intervene to address the immediate protection needs of the child from the time of submission until departure for resettlement.

Unaccompanied and separated children: family tracing

The United Nations Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children provide that: “As soon as an unaccompanied or separated child is taken into care, all reasonable efforts should be made to trace his/her family and re-establish family ties, when this is in the best interests of the child and would not endanger those involved.” UNHCR coordinates with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on family tracing activities for unaccompanied or separated children. Other tracing initiatives should be conducted in parallel, such as community-based tracing strategies and the use of proGres and/or other databases as a matching tool.

Family tracing is initiated where found to be in the child’s best interests; subsequent reunification will also be completed when this is in the child’s best interests. Child protection staff managing the child’s case through BIP are usually responsible for ensuring that all tracing efforts are documented to the extent possible, and the proGres record updated accordingly with details, including who is being traced.

Unaccompanied or separated children who are found to be amongst a household being considered for resettlement should be referred to child protection staff to check whether they are already being supported through BIP, and if not, to initiate BIP as well as family tracing if this is found to be in the child’s best interests. Resettlement colleagues may use functionalities like the Referral Entity in proGres to refer a case to child protection colleagues or partners and seek updates on the status of BIP and family tracing, however, an ongoing conversation on individual cases is important to ensure the child’s protection risks are understood and addressed through systematic coordination between functional units.

While tracing activities are ongoing, no action should be taken that may hinder eventual family reunification. At the same time, BIP should continually consider the extent to which family reunification is attainable. It may be useful for country offices to establish a set of criteria for when family tracing may be considered to “have been exhausted”, taking into consideration the operational realities of tracing as well as factors such as the length of separation. See 3.8.1. of UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines for further guidance relating to tracing efforts in the context of resettlement.

Where a child is at risk during the period of tracing and resettlement is considered the best intervention to address the specific risks faced by the child, or if there are other indications that family reunification may not be in the child’s best interests, a BID (in the case of an unaccompanied child) or a BIA (in the case of a separated child, except where there is an additional significant risk factor or protection concern that requires the safeguards of a BID, see above) should be completed to help decide upon the best solution for the child.

Married children and the need for a BIA or BID

In principle, UNHCR does not submit cases of married children for resettlement (see 3.4 Women and Girls at Risk). Where married children are submitted for resettlement due to acute protection needs or vulnerability in the case, consider the following principles, also set out in 4.2.6 in UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines:

– Any married child whose parents/ caregivers are not present should be treated as unaccompanied.

All married children should have a BIA, even those accompanied by their parents as well as their spouse (unless they require a BID – see below). For example, two married children who are being resettled with both their parents/caregivers and for whom no other protection concerns are identified would require a BIA.

If the child’s adult spouse is considered for resettlement with the child and their parents/ caregivers, a BID may be required depending on the age and views of the child concerned. This includes situations in which the child is below the legal age of marriage in the country of asylum and/or country of resettlement, where there are indications that the child did not assent to the marriage, or where the child was married under 15 years of age.

BIDs are always required in the following situations: when a married child is being considered for resettlement with their adult spouse without the parent/caregiver of the child, where two married children are being considered without their caregivers/parents, or where there are indications that the child is subject to violence, abuse or exploitation by their spouse or people with whom they will be resettled.

Documenting the situation of children and adolescents at risk in the RRF

Where a BIA has been undertaken to assess whether resettlement is in the best interests of the child, the assessment should be summarized in Section 7 “Additional Remarks” of the RRF.

Where a BID has been undertaken to determine whether resettlement is in the best interests of the child, the determination is provided in full as an attachment to the resettlement submission and summarized in Section 7 of the RRF.

Any discrepancies between the BID and the information in RRF should be resolved before submission of the RRF. Minor discrepancies that do not affect the overall coherency or credibility of the submission may be explained in Section 7 of the RRF.

Relevant supporting documentation, assessments or reports should be included in the resettlement submission, in line with data protection and privacy principles (see 2.3 Data protection in resettlement). Additional general guidance on sharing child protection information can be found in chapter 3.5 of UNHCR’s BIP Guidelines.

Specific needs data that is necessary and proportionate for the purpose of facilitating settlement service provision should be set out in Section 6 “Specific Needs” of the RRF. This will help ensure that relevant information about services is made available to the individual upon arrival. Sharing of GBV-related specific needs data should be based on consent and in accordance with the GBV Guiding Principles.

Actions planned and implemented to meet ongoing protection needs pending the completion of the resettlement process may be included in the RRF, in accordance with data protection and privacy principles, for the purposes of advocacy and to emphasize the immediate and ongoing protection needs of the child.