Date of Dissertation


Document Type



Social Work


Children make up half of the world’s refugees, yet limited research documents the views of youth about their own migratory circumstances and recommendations. This dissertation contributes new knowledge of migrant youths’ views by analyzing selected secondary data from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) interviews conducted with unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico in the custody of the U.S. federal government for entering the United States without the proper documents.

In light of prior research focused on unaccompanied children’s protection issues outside of the home, the first section of this banded dissertation analyzes interviews with unaccompanied children who disclosed child maltreatment in the home or family setting. Examination of this dataset finds that females reported higher rates of maltreatment overall, a higher incidence of multiple abuse experiences, and nearly exclusively reported experiencing sexual abuse and domestic violence, as compared to their male counterparts. Girls were more likely to disclose maltreatment as a reason for migrating, while boys were more likely to disclose abuse as a form of suffering or harm, suggesting the need for varied methods of inquiring about maltreatment, as well as acknowledgement that maltreatment revelations depend upon the interviewer’s skills and not merely upon whether abuse occurred.

The second section analyzes the responses of Central American and Mexican migrant children to one interview question regarding how to help youth like themselves, and identifies several implied “no-win” situations as potential reasons for the migration decisions of unaccompanied children. Furthermore, the children’s responses highlight the interconnected nature of economics, security, and education as migratory factors. Children demonstrated use of political speech, primarily through negative references regarding their home country’s government, president, and the police, with particular emphasis on police corruption and ineffectiveness. Their recommendations have implications for interdisciplinary and coordinated international development responses to migratory causes, and for providing youth with meaningful opportunities to contribute their views and suggestions.

The third section concludes by using reflection on the research experience to examine various decision points before and during the research process. A “thesis>antithesis>synthesis” formula is employed to aid future researchers in predicting and resolving the research tensions discussed, and to protect the dignity of research participants, particularly when working with a vulnerable and hard-to-access population.

Unaccompanied migrant children have many lessons to teach us about the gender and age-based risks they face, their recommendations for helping themselves and others like them, and research methods with young people. These lessons may not come in the manner, timeframe, or sense of logic that adults expect they should, and children may indeed view the world differently from adults. Even in this, children are trying to teach us something, if we are willing to listen.