“Children on the run”: The American child migrant crisis

Yacine Simporé

They come from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and México. They cross the US-Mexico Border alone. Most of them are minors.

The American child migrant crisis has been putting the spotlight on US immigration policy over the past months, as the numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border has reached unseen levels since 2011. According to the U.S Customs and Border Protection, 57, 000 children from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and México have entered the U.S since October 2013. Estimations show that there will be more than 70, 000 minors showing up alone at the US border by the end of 2014.

Why do they run away from their country?

In the “Children on the Run” report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveals that the main trigger of this humanitarian crisis is the increase of two types of harms in migrant children’s home countries:  domestic violence and the rise of violence committed by armed criminal groups.

In fact, over the past years, the Northern triangle of Central America has been marked by an alarming rise of violence. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), from 2000 to 2011, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala ranked among the top ten most violent places in the world, with murders rates of 92, 69 and 19 for every 100 000 inhabitants respectively in each country. Some observers have linked this situation to the surge of families and youth emigration flow to the United States. 

Among the 404 children aged between 12 and 17 interviewed by the UNHCR (approximately 100 representing each country), 48% confided that they ‘had been affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors.” 21% of the children who spoke revealed to the UNHCR that they ‘survived abuse and violence in their homes by their caretakers’. 

Here are some of the children's striking testimonies relayed in the study:

‘My stepfather used to beat me. He would get angry at me and hit me with a belt, punch me, or beat me with a metal pipe. I would protect my mother and he would get angry at me.’  JOSÉ, MEXICO, AGE 17 (‘Children on the run’ page 9)

 ‘My grandmother wanted me to leave.  She told me: “If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do join, the rival gang will shoot you—or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.” KEVIN, HONDURAS, AGE 17 (‘Children on the run’ page 10)

Treat them as refugees not criminals

In 2008, George Bush administration signed a law stating that unaccompanied children who cross the border will not be sent back to their home countries without going through a full immigration hearing. From there, only children arriving from Mexico were eligible to be deported after 72 hours if they did not manage to convince the US Border Agents that they are fleeing persecution from their home country. To address this ongoing humanitarian crisis, the Government is now aiming at reforming this law and extending it to Central American Children migrants. 

This means that according to the US Government, the fate of a twelve-year-old kid could rely on his/her ability to find right arguments that prove his/her situation of distress.

The 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees recognizes the right to international protection to individuals unable to receive protection in their countries. In this respect, if emigrating children show they had valuable reasons to leave their home countries, as it is revealed in the report, “they must not be sent back in a mechanical way” according to Fernando Protti, UNHCR regional representative. 

The relevance of addressing the crisis at local levels: The example of the Department of Morazán in El Salvador

The “Children on the run” report provides several recommendations to address this crisis in a smoother and more effective way. It include the recognition that violence and insecurity in these countries have led to the displacement of children; the development of regional protocols to protect the needs of children at risk to leave; and the strengthening of capacities to ensure the systematic identification of children with international protection needs.

However, while much can be done at international, national and regional levels, giving a larger room of manoeuvre to local authorities affected by this crisis can be an impactful solution to this ongoing issue.

Local authorities in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico are the first to observe this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Hence, they must be at the forefront of initiatives to effectively address this issue. Children are leaving cities that are not able to ensure their full protection. Communes in these regions have to provide the youth with reasons to stay and stave off insecurity and violence that create fear and feed the need to leave. Solutions must be also considered at local levels.

This is the whole purpose of the project “Supporting entrepreneurship in the 7 Municipalities of Morazán”, funded by the Joint Migration and Development Initiative. The department of Morazán concentrates high rates of unemployment especially among young people, making them the group most willing to migrate. The labour market or self-employment opportunities for those who stay in the region are limited and as a result have created various social problems such as family breakdowns, low interest in pursuing studies, scarce labor in rural areas, as well as the rise of violence caused by criminal groups. This lack of economic opportunities coupled with high emigration flows have progressively caused deterioration of natural and agricultural resources and severe impoverishment of populations residing in the 7 poorest Municipalities of the Department of Morazán: Perquín, San Fernando, Yamabal, Sociedad, Yoloaiquin, Guatajiagua and Lolotiquillo.

 In this context, the department of Morazán in partnership with various local actors is currently running a program to encourage youth entrepreneurship in the Municipalities of Perquín, San Fernando, Society and Yamabal which targets young people aged between 16 and 19. The main objective is to provide the young population of these municipalities with alternatives to migration. In the framework of this program, agreements have been signed with the Mayors of the 4 municipalities involved, which provide financial support to income generating activities of young men and women. Having obtained positive results from this first implementation phase, the department of Morazán will expand this program to 3 other municipalities. 

     In the report ‘War’s Humans Cost’, UNHCR reports a sharp increase of children among the populations of refugees and asylum seekers in 2013. Syria and South Sudan are the two countries that register the highest numbers asylum claims lodged by children with respectively one million and 3, 100 during 2013. While governments are still passing the buck onto the other to provide concrete solutions to respond to this growing issue, initiatives similar to the Morazán’s are the proof that impactful actions can be undertaken at smaller levels. This can be done by further engaging and connecting local authorities, civil society organizations and communities.