Rapid evidence assessment: what works to protect children on the move

Rachel Marcus, Amina Khan, Carmen Leon-Himmelstine and Jenny Rivett




This rapid evidence assessment examines interventions that have been effective in ensuring the protection of children on the move, distilling those factors that improve or hamper effectiveness.

The analysis is based on a review of 89 studies of health and education sector interventions with child protection objectives and outcomes. Studies have been carried out in all five continents, but most are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa (mainly East and Central Africa) and the Middle East. Around a third of interventions aimed to strengthen systems for protecting children on the move through either national-level policy and legal reform, investment in community-based child protection mechanisms, or workforce strengthening at national or community level. The majority of studies examined direct activities with children and families; these tended to be small-scale interventions of relatively short duration.

Key findings:

  • Interventions aimed at national-level policy or legal reform demonstrated some progress, even if reforms were not complete at the time of evaluation. Reforms related to the protection of refugee children in emergency situations, anti-trafficking laws and policies, and the protection of child migrants (often child laborers), usually in more stable contexts.
  • Investments in community-based child protection mechanisms were effective in challenging entrenched interests to address child protection violations, provided stakeholders had a sense of ownership and collective responsibility. These were typically implemented in refugee camps, post-emergency contexts with significant numbers of internally displaced children, and in communities with high levels of child migration and trafficking. Activities were often hampered by lack of operational budgets, lack of remuneration of volunteers, and a perceived lack of follow up after referral, which undermined ongoing commitment in some initiatives.
  • Workforce strengthening initiatives (such as the training of social workers or police) generated improvements in knowledge or skills. Workforce training was most effective when sustained over time, repeated frequently to take account of staff turnover, and carried out alongside wider system strengthening efforts that enabled staff to put new learning into practice.
  • Interventions aimed at improving children’s knowledge of migration and trafficking risks were largely successful in raising awareness. Effective initiatives used good quality information sharing and behavior change methods, with multiple information, education and communication materials, community conversations, and messages delivered by trusted facilitators or public figures. However, interventions were insufficient to deter unsafe migration among adolescents living in poverty or communities with high levels of violence.
  • Cash transfers provided to refugees produced mixed impacts on child protection outcomes, with some evidence of an association between improvements in living conditions and reduced financial stress, better psychosocial wellbeing for adults and children, and reduced violence against children. There was little evidence that skills training is effective in reducing protection violations.
  • Interventions such as social and behavioral change activities had positive impacts on violence against children. In projects focused on gender-based violence, effective interventions directly raised awareness of harmful norms, and engaged men as partners in change rather than perpetrators only.
  • Interventions targeting refugee and migrant child workers produced mixed results. Interventions reporting improvements tended to have a clear focus on combating child labor. Livelihoods components were generally ineffective.
  • Interventions to improve the care of children on the move reported positive results. The majority of initiatives focused on reunification of unaccompanied and separated children in emergencies, and on alternative care arrangements for child refugees and asylum-seekers in more stable contexts.
  • Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) activities reported positive changes to children’s psychosocial wellbeing. They included psychosocial interventions such as creative arts, play, group therapy, and counseling, the majority of which were provided through safe/child-friendly spaces in refugee or IDP camps, and/or host communities.
  • Factors that contributed to the effectiveness of interventions, include: (a) a supportive political environment for policy and system reforms, and a supportive policy environment for community-level initiatives; (b) ownership of initiatives—by politicians and civil servants at the national level who felt a mandate to drive reform, and by community leaders and stakeholders at the local level; (c) adequate financial resources for implementation; (d) interventions that worked simultaneously at policy, system and local levels, and with multiple actors and agencies; and (e) skilled and committed staff and volunteers, particularly in initiatives working directly with children, where ability to develop rapport was essential.
  • Factors that reduced the effectiveness of interventions include: (a) overambitious goals for relatively short projects, particularly for initiatives that aimed to change deeply entrenched norms (e.g. around gender-based violence or violence against children) or to develop alternatives to child labor; (b) insufficient cultural grounding; (c) discriminatory gender norms which, particularly insecure settings, limited girls’ access to opportunities such as safe spaces; and (d) challenging socioeconomic contexts, resulting from high levels of unemployment and poverty, or restrictions on refugees’ right to work, which undermined efforts to improve livelihoods as a means of addressing child protection violations.
  • The review also identifies several weaknesses in the research on the effectiveness of interventions. These included: (a) the lack of a counterfactual—few studies compared impacts between participants and non-participants or reflected on the extent to which results were attributable to project activities; (b) limited quantitative data on the scale of change (effect sizes) and limited discussion of whether changes were statistically significant; (c) limited comparisons of the relative impact of different activities in multi-component initiatives, and of multiple activities compared to single activity initiatives; (d) while findings suggest that livelihood interventions achieved some lasting impact on skills, participants were not always able to generate substantial incomes with those skills; (e) assessments of policy and legal reform typically reported on whether new laws or policies had been developed, or international or inter-departmental coordination strengthened, however they did not examine the impact of these changes on the lives of the children or families; and (f) the lack of insights into emerging innovative practices.
  • Specific gaps in the evidence were also identified in the following areas: (a) child protection following disaster-related displacement; (b) child protection at borders or in transit; (c) initiatives with returnees; (d) interventions focused on specific social groups such as children with disabilities, LGBTQI adolescents and young people, and ethnic or religious minorities; (e) statelessness; (f) specific strategies such as cross-border cooperation, approaches to workforce strengthening other than training (e.g. secondments, social work degrees) as well as strategies to address xenophobic discrimination; (g) evidence on what works to reduce specific protection violations; and (h) evidence of children’s active involvement in initiatives.

In their conclusion, the authors make a number of recommendations to improve the evidence base. In addition to further evidence assessments and thematic evaluations to fill key gaps, they recommend embedding impact assessments more systematically in project design, as well as making greater use of agencies’ internal monitoring and case management data (with appropriate anonymization) to understand the impacts of initiatives with a shorter timeframe, complemented with interviews with staff familiar with implementation, challenges and facilitating factors. Finally, they recommend improving the analysis of the sustainability of results (and the factors that have contributed to sustainability), the impacts of policy reforms and system-strengthening activities on the lives of children on the move, and the differential effects of initiatives on different groups of children on the move.