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World Refugee Day

What about data for and about refugee children?

How can responsible data for children improve the way we approach the needs of refugee children?

Posted on 20th of June 2022 by Andrew Zahuranec, Andres Arau

What about data for and about refugee children?
What about data for and about refugee children?

Nearly half of the forcibly displaced people are children.[1] From birth, a growing number of uprooted children (whether refugee, displaced and migrant children), like many children around the globe, have their entire lives datafied. They are among a new generation of people whose information is regularly collected.[2]

Organisations providing services to refugees, including children, rely on a variety of technologies and digital tools to provide services. These include biometrics that verify identities using unique physiological characteristics (such as fingerprints, iris and facial features) and ensure that refugees’ personal identities cannot be lost or subject to identity theft. Or messaging-based services and chatbots, sometimes including a level of artificial intelligence, to provide advice and psychosocial support.

This data can help organisations provide better services.

When the right data are in the right hands at the right time, decisions can be better informed, more equitable, and more likely to protect children's rights—especially for those in vulnerable contexts such as uprooted children. While crisis and conflict drive more children to travel alone,[3] little is known about unaccompanied children. Data could help identify and support them so they are not left behind. It has already proven integral for child protection work around the globe—such as helping children in Mozambique displaced by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth.[4]

However, the data handled for and about refugee children can generate risks.

Uprooted children have lived traumatic events. Driven from their homes by conflict, poverty, or climate change, they can also encounter danger, detention, deprivation, and discrimination on their journeys, at destination or upon return.[5] Organisations asking children to provide data or register for services may revisit such trauma when collecting data, especially if repeatedly conducted in an uncoordinated manner. Data breaches containing information on refugee children’ can cause children to lose trust in institutions that deliver essential services including lifesaving supplies or have severe retribution if they or their families ever return to their country of birth.

What is urgently needed, is responsible data.

Responsible Data for Children

Refugee children should be more actively engaged and informed on what the data collected about them is going to be used for. Their specific and distinctive needs, interests and expectations should be recognised and prioritised in programmes involving and supporting them. Recognising that refugee, migrant and displaced children as children first and foremost—with rights to protection, development and participation[6] , includes recognising that collecting, storing, preparing, sharing, analysing, and using data about children create unique opportunities and risks.

All of this is central to Responsible Data for Children, a joint endeavour between UNICEF and The GovLab to highlight and support best practices around the responsible handling of data for and about children. Guiding the effort are the Responsible Data for Children principles.

Drawing upon field-based research and established good practice, the Responsible Data for Children principles were conceived to guide responsible data handling toward saving children’s lives, defending their rights, and helping them fulfil their potential from early childhood through adolescence—paying particular attention to marginalised and vulnerable groups such as refugee children.

In its forthcoming work, Responsible Data for Children will be looking at ways it can directly support practitioners in the field, including in refugee settings. It will be collaborating with UN staff, civil society partners and government officials to help them build the principles directly into their existing work in ways that can improve the lives of refugee children. These efforts will seek to be collaborative and include the input of children and their caregivers.


As data practitioners think of ways to best support refugee children on World Refugee Day and every day, we invite them to look at Responsible Data for Children. By operationalizing its principles, we can ensure that data is used for the benefit of refugee children everywhere.


[Image credit: Piero Olliaro]




[3] (Fact 9)




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