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More than ever, young people move. Over the past few decades, political, economic, social and demographic changes in many parts of the world have uprooted many people and stimulated migration to cities and abroad. The growing volume of trade, faster and cheaper transport, and easier communication have encouraged more young people to migrate within and across national borders.

The dream of better opportunities and demand for their labour from abroad sets many young people in motion. Violence, war, poverty, unemployment, crime or persecution drive many others to escape.

Many leave with few belongings, little money and scanty information about their destination; but they take with them the great assets of youth, resilience, resourcefulness and perseverance. But, precisely because of their age, they face obstacles and risks that test their endurance.

Young people on the move are determined. Many lack working papers, and cross borders as visitors or tourists. Others pay smugglers to get them in. If necessary they cross oceans in precarious boats, or burning deserts hidden in cars. They find a way.

On the move, young people are vulnerable. They may be taken by smugglers to a different destination than they set out for. What started as a move for a better life may end up for many, in particular young women, as a trap: in the nets of sex traffickers, or consigned as domestic workers to semi-slavery. Some young people are hurled into the maelstrom of war or civil conflict. They are taken as soldiers or escape as best they can, with their families or without.

The international migration of young people has demographic, social, cultural, and economic implications. Young people aged 10 to 24 now account for more than 30 per cent of the population of developing countries.(1) Most of the young migrants come from these countries.

Many countries, in particular those with aging populations, benefit from young migrants who fill the lowest-paid jobs that no one else wants, contributing to the huge machinery that moves cities and communities. They provide manual labour in agriculture and construction; they do domestic work and service jobs in homes, hotels and restaurants. There is also a growing demand for qualified workers in such areas as health care, communication technologies, and sports.

The emigration of young people reduces the labour force among a highly productive age group in sending countries, including many who are newly qualified or skilled. But young migrants send money back to their home countries, and bring their skills and experience with them when they return.

Migration means losing the networks of family and friends that give young people support and a sense of identity and direction. On the other hand, young women especially may find some liberation from traditional restrictions.

Integration largely depends on the host countries’ policies to help young migrants learn the language, find employment, housing, education and health care, and protect them from racism, xenophobia and discrimination. It also depends on migrants’ ability to adapt. Young people are often more flexible and eager to learn and can help their elders.

Young women who migrate alone may join the host society on their own terms and enjoy the autonomy conferred by education and employment: but within the family the instinct in many immigrant communities is to limit their daughters’ “outside” contact and the risks that go with it. Such issues can set up tensions between migrants and their hosts, and within immigrant communities, which are only now being fully recognised.

In spite of the risks of moving abroad, most young people find it a rewarding experience, offering employment, increased skills, knowledge of the world and networks with benefits for both host and home countries.

Dreaming of Moving Abroad

Globalisation and greater access to information may have made young people more aware of the opportunities they lack at home. Exposure to cinema and TV, increased access to the internet, the tales of migrants, and what they can see of the lives of better-off people in their own countries motivate their dreams.

Young people hope for a future where their visions and full potential can be realized. With limited and unequal opportunities, it does not come as a surprise that a large proportion of young people in developing countries and countries in transition wish to emigrate, for example: 51 per cent in the Arab countries;(2) 63 per cent in Bosnia;(3) over 60 per cent in the Primorye Region of Far Eastern Russia;(4) 47 per cent in Peru;(5) and 25 per cent in Slovakia.(6)

Their wishes seldom become reality. Few make actual plans to leave, and even fewer make it to the countries they set out for. Nevertheless, the realization that so many young people contemplate their escape has become a contentious issue for many societies.

How Many Go Abroad?

Little is known of the full diversity and complexity of young people’s international migration. Data are extremely limited, because for many years international migrants were presumed to be men of working age. Women and young people were presumed to migrate only as part of family units. Many countries now collect information on women and young people migrating alone, but few make it available in a usable form and fewer still analyse it. Young people remain largely invisible in research, public debates and policy about international migration.

Despite their absence in debates about international migration, experts agree that young people between 15 and 30 years of age historically and to this day represent a large share of migrants. It is estimated that in 2005 there were over 191 million international migrants worldwide.(7) The majority come from developing countries and countries in transition.(8) They migrate to better-off neighbouring countries or to developed countries.

It is estimated that the proportion of youth from developing countries who cross borders is about a third of the overall migration flow and about a quarter of the total number of immigrants worldwide,(9) with numbers ranging from 20 percent of all Tajikistanis in Russia(10) to 50 percent of all Nicaraguan migrants established in Costa Rica.(11) If we were to extend the definition of youth to also include those who are between the ages 25 to 29, youth would constitute half of the migrant flow and a third of the stock.(12)

Women migrate as much as men.(13) It could be assumed that the same applies for young people. For example, young women are a major share of domestic workers and nurses who migrate. Young men predominate among migrants from Central America.

In today’s world physical mobility is increasingly equated with upward socio-economic mobility. Early in life, without an established job or family, the perceived benefits of migrating in search of new and improved opportunities can considerably outweigh the costs.(14) Youth offers the advantage of a longer time-frame to overcome the challenges of moving abroad, and to reap the potential rewards.(15)

Reports from various regions indicate a rising proportion of adolescents among migrant workers. In the Americas, this has become an important feature of migration in the past 15 years.(16) For example 15 per cent of all Mexicans seeking employment in the US in 1997 were adolescents.(17) Survey results from shelters in Mexico and Central America, at transit points for migrants heading to the United States, reported that 40 per cent of new arrivals were adolescents between 14 and 17 years of age.(18) Studies on the border between Thailand, Myanmar and China report adolescents as young as 13 crossing borders alone.(19)

Young people generally have less voice and less power than their elders, and international migration itself has only recently come to the forefront of public and global agendas. The lack of data on young people crossing borders is a major obstacle to the development of appropriate policies and responses for this most vulnerable age group.

The Diverse Faces of Young Migrants

Young women and men who migrate come from all kinds of social, economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds. They cross borders for many reasons: in search of work, both temporary or permanent; as refugees escaping conflict or persecution, who have sometimes lost or been separated from their parents; in search of a better education; to be reunited with parents or other relatives who have already settled in a foreign land; or for marriage, including young women involved in arranged or forced marriages. Some parents encourage their children to go abroad to escape poverty and limited options at home. Others want to ensure that they and other family members will be taken care of later in life.(20) Many are lured away from their homes by false promises of better lives elsewhere. Some are travelling accompanied, others alone. Tens of thousands of children and adolescents who cross borders undocumented without their parents or legal guardians are detained and deported every year.(21)

Individual aspirations, family situations, cultural mindset and overall quality of life are among the factors that influence young people’s decisions to migrate. For young men, travel abroad can be a rite of passage. For young women in some parts of West Africa it is customary to migrate for a period of time to do domestic work, either in their own countries or abroad.(22) The young women save their earnings in preparation for marriage. While many young people and their parents know the challenges and risks of migration, others do not, and end up disillusioned with harsh living and working conditions.

Some migration streams and types of work favour one sex over the other. For example, young men were the majority of migrants leaving Albania(23), India (Kerala State)(24) and West Africa.(25) Young men are preferred for physical labour such as construction work. Well-educated young men who are highly skilled in information and communications technologies and scientific research are recruited by multinationals and welcomed by countries eager to stay competitive and profitable in global markets. A rarer form of forced sex-selective migration is the trafficking of boys, especially from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, to become camel jockeys in countries of the Arabian Gulf where the sport is popular.(26)

Young women predominate in migration for domestic work. For many young women, migration can provide a route to escape the restrictions of traditional gender norms. But because they are female, young women’s experiences of migration are replete with abuse and violence, especially of a sexual nature. In countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where young women have moved in large numbers from rural to urban areas to work in export-oriented factories, their incomes can raise their status within the family and grant them a greater say in decisions about their destinies, such as resisting pressures to marry and bear children early. Though by no means exempt from sexual harassment and other infringements on their human rights, for many young women the experience and skills they acquire in this work can be a step to migration abroad for better-paid jobs.