A precarious journey: unaccompanied minor migrants of Central America

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Between October 2013 and August 2015, 102,327 unaccompanied children from Central America (76,572 from Central America’s Northern Triangle and 25,755 from Mexico) reached the Mexico-United States border (Sarah Pierce, Migration Policy Institute, 2015). This influx of migrants led to the tightening of police and judicial measures in the United States and Mexico, resulting in the deportation of many minors, despite their right to seek asylum.

In the first half of 2016 alone, 26,000 unaccompanied children reached the border (UNICEF, 2016). This figure shows that the problem persists and that, consequently, the protection policies implemented by the USA are still needed, both in countries of origin and destination.

Why do children make the journey north?

The majority of the children come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — known collectively as the Northern Triangle of Central America — which experience some of the highest rates of violence in the world (UNICEF, 2016). They escape difficult backgrounds of widespread violence and poverty.

Many of the children and teenagers wphotoho make the journey north escape from the so-called “Maras”, Latin American gangs which formed in the 1970s in California, USA. These gangs expanded in the 1980s as large numbers of Centr
al Americans arrived in the USA, fleeing the civil wars that plagued the region at that time. Once the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were over, the United States began a program of mass deportation of Central American gang members to their countries of origin, which lacked adequate policies for reintegration of these people into society. This resulted in the strengthening and proliferation of such gangs which fought amongst themselves for control of urban territory, trafficking of drugs and weapons, and carried out contract killings and blackmail (Rivera, 2011). These gangs recruit minors who face difficult situations of poverty and insecurity on a daily basis and who therefore see the gangs as a solution to their problems. There are others who simply have no choice but to join the gangs because they are told that they will be killed if they refuse to do so. The members of these gangs range between 9 and 25 years of age (Rivera, 2011).

Minors also make this journey to escape difficult situations of poverty, often extreme poverty, and a lack of education and work opportunities. These countries see high rates of child abuse and domestic violence which worsens the situation of these children. Escaping similar situations, others travel to join family members who are already in the United States (UNICEF, 2016). Given these conditions, children see the journey as their ticket to “the American dream”.

The route north: a perilous journey

The journey to the United States, known as the route north, is fraught with danger, especially for unaccompanied children. On top of the difficult conditions of the journey (hours of walking; difficult routes by train, boat and truck; high temperatures and a lack of food), these young boys and girls are often victims of physical and sexual abuse, child trafficking, kidnapping and blackmail. These crimes are perpetrated not only by people traffickers, but also by networks of drug and weapons traffickers present on the migration routes who take advantage of the vulnerability of minors and force them to carry drugs and weapons on their journey north (UNHCR, 2014).

However, not all minors who make the journey reach the United States. Many are deported from Mexico, where their asylum requests are not processed and only very few are granted international protection. In 2015, less than 1% of children arriving in Mexico were granted international protection (UNICEF, 2016). In many other cases, children disappear or die en route.

An inadequate response to solve the problem at the border

On the one hand, the arrival of these minors has exposed the limits of the migration system in the United States, where processing asylum requests and granting protection is slow and demonstrates an inability (or unwillingness) to carry out the procedures which are necessary and obligatory under International Law. In some cases, the unaccompanied minors have to wait for up to two years to appear before a migration judge, who is responsible for granting refugee status or filing a deportation order. In other cases, the minors do not know which procedures to follow and without the assistance of a lawyer their chance of remaining in the United States is lower (Marc R. Rosenblum, MPI, 2015).  According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), between 2010 and 2014, 40,000 minors from Central America were deported to their countries of origin (Dominguez & Victoria Rietig, MPI, 2015); however, this number could be higher due to inconsistencies surrounding this figures.

On the other hand, one of the solutions proposed by the US and Mexican governments was to strengthen the police presence on the border. This policy has led to the creation of detention centres, which comprehensively fail to provide adequate services for minors, who require special attention and protection (Marc R. Rosenblum, MPI, 2015). Similarly, this measure has resulted in mass deportations and detentions, increasing the violations of migrants’ rights, including those of unaccompanied children (Ximena Suarez et al., 2016).

The path to follow: some recommendations

Children and teenagers who decide to travel to the United States hoping for a better life consistently experience infringement and violation of their rights to life, survival and protection.

Bearing in mind this reality, it is essential to guarantee the effective and comprehensive protection of migrants throughout their journey. Firstly, the countries of origin must be able to provide them with basic services and guarantee their safety, so that they do not have to flee. Secondly, people trafficking is a risk factor that must be confronted effectively by relevant authorities. It is essential that authorities investigate crimes committed against these children on their journey north, and against all migrants in general. Thirdly, systems of migration and asylum in countries of transit and destination must effectively and appropriately attend to the need for the international protection of these children. Finally, the creation of detention centres should be avoided at all costs and governments should find alternative measures that provide minors with the attention and protection they need.

Written by : Paula Trujillo Gonzalez
Translated by : Thomas Gray
Proofread by : Holly-Anne Whyte


Sarah Pierce. Unaccompanied Child Migrants in U.S. Communities, Immigration Court, and Schools. Migration Policy Institute -MPI.  Washington, D.C. October 2015. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/unaccompanied-child-migrants-us-communities-immigration-court-and-schools

Marc R. Rosenblum. Unaccompanied Child Migration to the United States: The Tension between Protection and Prevention. Migration Policy Institute – MPI. Washington, D.C, April 2015. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/unaccompanied-child-migration-united-states-tension-between-protection-and-prevention

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Rodrigo Dominguez Villegas and Victoria Rietig. Migrants Deported from the United States and Mexico to the Northern Triangle: A Statistical and Socio Economic Profile, Migration Policy Institute – MPI. Washington, D.C,  September, 2015 http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/migrants-deported-united-states-and-mexico-northern-triangle-statistical-and-socioeconomic

UNICEF. La infancia en peligro. Sueños rotos: el peligroso viaje de los niños centroamericanos a los Estados Unidos. August, 2016.  https://www.unicef.org/honduras/sue_os_rotos.pdf

ACNUR. Arrancados de raíz. Causas que originan el desplazamiento transfronterizo de niños, niñas y adolescentes no acompañados y/o separados de Centroamérica y su necesidad de protección internacional. August 2014. http://www.acnur.org/fileadmin/scripts/doc.php?file=fileadmin/Documentos/Publicaciones/2014/9828

Human Rights Watch. US: Children Face Deportation Without Lawyers International Law Requires Legal Counsel for Child Migrants. March 2014. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/03/14/us-children-face-deportation-without-lawyers