© Helvetas

Migrant Children in Africa: A Major Challenge for Education Systems

BY: Regis Blanc, Nicolas Cacciuttolo , Corinne Massardier , Pascal Fendrich - 21. June 2023
© Helvetas

The mobility of children and youth poses challenges for West and North African countries to implement inclusive education systems. Access to education, training and integration is a right for young migrants and the responsibility of duty-bearers. Education is also one of the best ways to contribute to safer mobility, and serves as a long-term investment by promoting the knowledge of future generations and ensuring better integration in host communities.

Together with the rising global population, the number of international migrants has increased over the last decades. There are an estimated 281 million migrants, of which 36 million are children under age 18 (a 28% increase between 2010 and 2019). The youthfulness of the migration phenomenon is particularly significant on the African continent.

Migration of children in Africa – a multi-causal reality

Africa has the largest share of children and youth among its migrant population – over one in four immigrants in Africa is a child, which is more than twice the global average. At least 13.5 million children were on the move in Africa in 2017, including those living as refugees, migrants or internally displaced. These figures are underestimated since reliable data is missing. In addition, these numbers do not capture the complexity of migration, which is driven by multiple overlapping factors.

While children and youth make up a large part of these population movements, the drivers of this mobility are very diverse, and include: extreme poverty, lack of employment, desire to access quality education, search for sustainable development opportunities, family or social tradition of migration, violence, political instability, conflicts and environmental problems, or simply the search for a better life. Girls and young women have these same motivations, in addition to the added elements of gender inequality and discrimination caused by the socio-cultural constraints of their communities of origin; they also frequently face these same issues during their migration route.

The dual vulnerability of children and youth migrants

Children and youth on the move are even more vulnerable than adult migrants and face uprooting, marginalization, lack of economic and material resources, lack of access to basic services, and an increased risk of abuse, violence and exploitation. In addition to the general risks suffered by all migrants, for this group there is also the intrinsic vulnerability of childhood, especially for unaccompanied or poorly accompanied children and youth. Other vulnerability factors influence and condition the experiences of children and youth on migration routes. These factors interact and may be combined to expose them to greater risks.

While it is true that children and youth migration can lead to increased vulnerability, it can also be a source of opportunities to reduce that same vulnerability by receiving protection, accessing education or employment opportunities, and acquiring new skills and competences. Areas of transit and destination may also benefit from a capable workforce and skills, and areas of origin may benefit from the skills and competences acquired by these children and youth.

To access these benefits, actors need to better integrate migration realities into local, national and regional policy frameworks. So far, state and international cooperation actors mainly address migration through sectoral interventions (e.g., security, protection) and specific institutions (e.g., ministries) but have shown little progress in integrating migration into other main sectors such as education, health and vocational training. It is of the utmost importance to adapt services for better coverage of protection needs and to leverage migration-related opportunities.

This importance underpins the approach of the “Children and Youth on Migration Routes in West and Northwest Africa” (EJM) project, a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. EJM focuses on the region of North and West Africa and supports actors and service providers to understand migration implications and to adapt services to better integrate migrants’ identified needs and opportunities. In these contexts, children and youth on the move face multiple protection risks and daunting challenges in accessing education, vocational training and labor markets.

Access to education while on the move

The legal frameworks of all countries covered by the project allow universal access to school for all children, including non-nationals. Yet mechanisms supporting such access for non-national children are often missing.

The problem is two-fold: On the demand side, children and youth migrants do not necessarily have the time, desire or means to go to school or attend a training. On the supply side, even if the systems already do their best to be inclusive, they are often not inclusive enough to meet the needs and vulnerabilities of this group, either because of a lack of will and/or limited technical capacities.

The challenge is to improve the match between the two sides:

  • Either by influencing the demand (e.g., convincing young migrants to delay their departure so that they have time to train)
  • Or by adapting the existing offer (e.g., flexibility of schedules, easing of administrative constraints)
  • Or by proposing bridging measures to facilitate the integration of this group into existing services (e.g., language of instruction courses, upgrading, psycho-social support, recognition of prior learning)

To ensure its activities were relevant to individual contexts, the project began by learning more about the diversity of children and youth on the move in each area. The project launched innovative survey methods to identify communities of young migrants, gain access to relevant informers and to collect meaningful information.

The project partner Mouvement Africain des Enfants et Jeunes Travailleurs (MAEJT), which is composed of children and youth groups, organized dialogues with specific groups to present issues covered by the project; adapted the digital user assessment survey to make a children and youth-friendly questionnaire; and MAEJT members conducted the users assessment. This methodology of relying directly on youth to access young migrants required strong preparatory and support work, but provided access to vulnerable and hidden groups. In addition, the youth investigators increased their capacities and created links with children and youth on the move. Some of these children and youth even joined the MAEJT association after taking part in the user's assessment survey.

Once there was a better understanding of a community’s educational background and needs, the project aimed to direct them towards adapted solutions. This approach, however, requires that local education providers and authorities already have a proper orientation mechanism in place. If this is not the case, the project supports them in setting it up.

Most of the time, the latter approach will not be enough. Many different barriers stand between children and youth on the move and the existing services they want to access. For example, administrative documentation (e.g., residence permit, birth certificate), which many young migrants may not have, may be required for registration. Or those accompanying children and youth may lack information about the possibilities and rights to access school. Often, language is an obstacle that is difficult to overcome. In West African countries, the low quality of education is also a significant barrier in terms of attractiveness for children and youth – including for nationals (50% of Nigeriens between 7 and 16 years old do not attend school).

A thorough analysis of these obstacles helps us to propose appropriate solutions. While an exhaustive response is not possible for the time being, we have prioritized certain actions to carry out pilots that allow us to learn by experimenting while inserting ourselves into local ecosystems and building partnerships and alliances.

In Morocco, we have a promising partnership with the central administration in charge of education for children and youth on the move. The country already has a strategy to integrate this group into its education system, but resources are lacking for its implementation. A key issue is that, despite official guidelines, local schools' leadership is not always aware of their responsibilities to facilitate children’s registration. One of our priority actions will be to sensitise and train education actors on how to implement the official integration protocol in their areas.

In Guinea, we have identified many children and youth on the move, including nationals, who remain outside of formal primary schools. Here, our support will focus on the different technical aspects that make their integration difficult for the host schools and communities, including: pedagogical training to help teachers cope with diversity in their classrooms, capacity development for the parent councils and school boards, and the empowerment of student governments.

In Mali, our own vocational training project will adapt its modalities to the needs and constraints of young migrants. Motivated youths will receive initial guidance to develop their own "life projects," and then will be oriented towards short-term professional trainings that fit both their aspirations and what we know about the market orientations.

In addition, we plan to explore the potential of digitalisation to facilitate access to learning materials for people on the move. The project’s online learning platform will function as a portal linking to existing education resources that may fit these children and youth’s needs. Much interesting content was developed by West African countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Making this accessible to children and youth on the move will help keep them in touch with their language and culture. Finally, we will develop ad hoc content based on transversal needs like safe migration skills modules. The platform will be accessible for individual and peer-to-peer learning, but we will also support its utilisation in classrooms, workplaces or digital centres.

Beyond these inspiring but locally limited actions, we want to ensure that changes are systemic and sustainable. We must gradually convince more and more actors to consider mobility-related vulnerabilities in educational and employment policies and strategies. By strengthening the capacities of these actors and developing adequate tools, we hope to progress towards a situation where the needs of children and youth on the move are systematically taken into account. Hopefully these considerations will eventually be mainstreamed in the same way as gender issues, the inclusion of people with special needs, and, more recently, of mobile populations such as nomads, refugees and internally displaced persons.

At the same time, we believe that the process will help raise and amplify the voices of children and youth on the move by strengthening their capacity to speak out, from the school to national consultations, and by getting the actors already in place prepared to listen to them.

About the Project

The “Children and Youth on Migration Routes in West and Northwest Africa” (EJM) project is a Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation project that runs through 2024. The project aims to strengthen national and regional systems of protection, education and socio-economic integration in a sustainable manner and to facilitate access of children and youth on the move to the services provided by these systems (economic integration from the age of 18). The project started with five pilot countries (Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia) to develop and test approaches to strengthening systems that will be sustainable and not structurally dependent on external resources. This project is implemented by a consortium led by Helvetas, Terre des hommes and GIZ in partnership with Mixed Migration Centre, Médecins du Monde Belgium, Enda/MAEJT, SSI AO and SSI-International.


Helvetas neither encourages nor discourages people from migration. We recognize migration as a viable livelihood strategy.


Young people are a tremendous asset, but also a possible threat when denied access to labor markets, services and decision-making. Almost every second unemployed person is aged between 15 and 24.