Being forced from your home by war and conflict is unthinkably difficult for anyone, but for a child forced to flee on their own, the difficulties are even more extreme.

But how do children end up alone on the run? And what kind of help do they need?

Get to know the subject better in this article.

How many children are on the run alone?

No one has a precise overview of how many children are on the run alone. According to the UN, in 2019 there were 153,300 children under the age of 18 who were outside of their countries of origin and registered as either unaccompanied or separated from their parents.

That being said, a number of large refugee-hosting countries do not register children on the run alone, so the real number of unaccompanied children is likely to be far higher than just 153,300.

Why do children end up alone on the run?

There are many reasons why children may end up on the run alone. Some children’s parents have been killed before or during their escape. Other children initially flee with their parents, but for one reason or another become separated during what is often a long and dangerous journey. Finally, some children’s parents send them off alone, because the parents themselves lack the opportunity or ability to escape, but are desperate to get their child to safety.

How dangerous is it to be a child alone on the run?

Children on the run are among the most vulnerable people in the world. Escaping from war and conflict can be very dangerous and traumatic for anyone, and a child without adults to protect and guide them is at acute risk.

Some studies suggest that up to three out of four children on the run alone are abused. This abuse can take many forms, including violence, sexual assault, or exploitation by criminal networks that offer children food and shelter if the children commit crimes or perform other dangerous work for them.

What help do children on the run alone need most?

First and foremost, they need protection to ensure they are safe from abuse and exploitation. They also need help getting in touch with their parents or other family. Many children are uninformed about their rights and also need information and guidance about their legal options. Finally, many children have been exposed to violence and trauma on their journeys and need professional help to process and recover from these events.

Meet an orphan from South Sudan

16-year-old Mary John lost her parents in the civil war in South Sudan. She fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, where she is now the head of her family and sole caregiver for her younger siblings.

How do we help unaccompanied children on the run?

Firstly we ensure the children are safe, and subsequently we provide them access to a variety of protection services. This can include providing information and advice on their legal rights and the difficult choices inherent to their situation, or providing access to phones and the internet to help them get in touch with lost parents and family. We also administer Child Friendly Spaces in refugee camps, where we have staff trained to take care of vulnerable children. Finally, we refer unaccompanied children to further relevant services as needed, including psychosocial counseling, medical care, mentoring schemes, school or informal education, and much more.

The children lack maternal love, so it is important that they have some form of adult contact every day.

Milka, DRC social worker

Real life story: 14-year-old refugee Ihure looks after her one-year-old brother and five other orphans at camp

In a refugee camp in Kenya, seven orphans have found each other and now live alone without an adult to look after them. The youngest is just one year old, and at the tender age of 14, Ihure is the oldest.

Ihure and her young charges all come from the same area in South Sudan, where a long-running civil war has forced millions to flee. Five of the children arrived in the camp alone, while Ihure came with her little brother, one-year-old Mario. Ihure and Mario's mother was killed trying to break up a fight over food back in South Sudan.

Tall and slender in a flowery purple-and-yellow blouse, Ihure sports closely cropped hair and a serious gaze. None of the six other children she looks after have a mother or father, so now they live together in the Kalobeyei refugee camp in northern Kenya, close to the border with South Sudan.

As the eldest, Ihure has taken on the responsibility of caring for the younger orphans. She ensures that their cooking fire stays lit, that the younger ones get something to eat, and that everyone is taken care of as best as she can.

Adult contact is important

Over half of the children in the Kalobeyei camp have fled alone, just like Ihure and the barefoot children next to her. They have no shoes, and only the clothes on their backs. Flies swirl in the heat, settling on ears, noses, and the corners of the children’s eyes. The children stare ahead blankly, some with unwiped noses and visible sores on their heads.

"I still have not seen them laugh," says Milka, who is a social worker and visits the children every day.

There are not enough adults in the camp for the children to be attached to a foster parent. Therefore, Milka takes them to the health clinic, helps to ensure they receive their food rations, and makes sure that they get to school.

DRC social worker Milka holds 1-year-old Mario, who is malnourished and ill with malaria.

Milka visits Ihure and her new family every day. These children have been through a lot, both at home in South Sudan and on the road by themselves, so Milka also provides psychosocial counseling, talking with the children and helping them process their traumatic experiences.