The flow of refugee and migrant children – seeking refuge from brutal gangs and stifling poverty in Central America and making their way to the United States – shows no sign of letting up, despite the risks of being kidnapped, trafficked, raped, or killed on the journey, a report from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found.
In the first six months of 2016, almost 26,000 unaccompanied children and close to 29,700 people travelling as a family – mostly mothers and young children – were apprehended at the US border, according to the report, Broken Dreams: Central American Children's Dangerous Journey to the United States.
“It is heart-rending to think of these children – most of them teenagers, but some even younger – making the gruelling and extremely dangerous journey in search of safety and a better life. This flow of young refugees and migrants highlights the critical importance of tackling the violence and socio-economic conditions in their countries of origin,” said UNICEF's Deputy Executive Director, Justin Forsyth, in a press release.
The report was released ahead of the UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, on 19 September at UN Headquarters, in New York, as well as a summit on the global refugee crisis, hosted by US President Barack Obama during the high-level segment of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly on 20 September.
According to the report, most of the apprehended people are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which have some of the world's highest murder rates. They seek to get away from brutal gangs that target them or poverty and exclusion that deprive them of education and hope. Many also travel north to reunify with their families.
Many of the adults and some of the children apprehended at the US border are deported in expedited proceedings, women and young children spend weeks, and at times months in detention, while unaccompanied children may face years of uncertainty as their cases go before immigration courts, the report noted.
If deported, some of them could be killed or raped by the gangs they had sought to escape in the first place, and all these children need protection every step of the way – at home, along the journey and at their destination, the report stressed.
Data shows unaccompanied children who do not have an attorney in US immigration hearings – 40 per cent – are more likely to be deported than those who do. In recent cases, 40 per cent of unrepresented children were ordered deported, as compared to 3 per cent for represented children.
UNICEF warns of the "extremely dangerous journey" for Central America's children as they seek refuge. Credit: UN News Centre
In the first six months of 2014, more than 44,500 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the US border; the number dropped to almost 18,500 in the same period in 2015 and rose again this year to almost 26,000 by June, the report said.
Further, the report noted that thousands never make it as far as the US border. In the first six months of 2016, more than 16,000 refugee and migrant children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were apprehended in Mexico. In addition, hundreds of refugees and migrants die every year in the harsh environment along the Mexico-US border. Many more are missing and are feared to have been kidnapped, trafficked or murdered.
UNICEF said that detention of children on the basis of their migration status should be prevented. Children also should have full access to healthcare and other services and should be allowed to live with their families whenever possible.
Together with its partners, UNICEF is working to address the causes of migration by supporting the efforts of governments to improve children's lives and address communal and criminal violence in countries of origin.
UNICEF also works to strengthen services that reduce the vulnerability of children to violence, with a strong focus on education and health. It also advocates for the protection of children's rights throughout their journey, and for governments to provide assistance to returnee children.
“We must remember that children, whatever their status, are first and foremost children. We have a duty to keep them safe in a healthy and nurturing environment,” Mr. Forsyth said.