Deportation Instead of Protection: The State of Child Migration in Central America

In 2015, 170,000 child migrants were apprehended at the Mexican border. A majority of these children, both unaccompanied and accompanied minors, travelled from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras, collectively a region known as the Northern Triangle. The Northern Triangle is infamous for gang violence, which has plagued the region for more than a decade. Children are fleeing these countries to go north, specifically Mexico. The ultimate destination is the United States, but with recent increases in border control funding and security, making it to the US is more difficult and Mexico is becoming the favourable option. However, despite American funding to Mexican immigration enforcement, children with valid claims for asylum are not receiving the protection they legally deserve and more are facing deportation instead of refuge.

Image courtesy of Fibonacci Blue, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Fibonacci Blue, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Gang violence has plagued the Northern Triangle for more than a decade. In an October 2015 report by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), researchers observed, ‘in large parts of the territory [of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras], the violence has surpassed governments’ abilities to protect victims and provide redress.’ Each of these countries has a tremendously high homicide rate. For several years running, Honduras has had the world’s highest homicide rate of 90 per 100,00 people. The gang violence specifically affects children, for they are targeted by gangs, receive ‘death threats from criminal groups, [are caught in between] continuous fighting between rival gangs as well as experience common crime and domestic violence. Children are targets for gang recruitment. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report found that ‘one in every five children interviewed told [them] that pressures to join gangs were the primary motive for them to migrate.’ Children, particularly boys, are often approached by a gang member and are threatened to join the gang in a number of days or else they face death—an occurrence that is all too common. Without the protection of the government or police, the only choice they have is to flee north.

Another reason children flee, particularly girls, is the threat of rape and sexual harassment. Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch reveal a common theme of ineffective state protection of girls and women in both cases of rape and sexual harassment in gangs as well as domestic violence. Several women shared their stories in the Human Rights Watch report with one woman, Esther A., sharing how a group of five gang members tried to rape her 15–year-old daughter and her 11-year-old son fought them off. She took her son to the police station because he was badly injured, where they told him, ‘You should have let them rape your sister.’ This policeman’s remark not only reveals a lack of government protection but an underlying sexism in society, which hinders women from receiving security. In another interview, Alejandra M. stopped sending her daughter to school because she ‘feared that her daughter would be sexually assaulted. ‘Five guys wanted to abuse her. They were from the gang … they were going to rape her.’’ Although these are only two accounts, violence against women is not uncommon in the Northern Triangle. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have the first, third, and seventh highest female homicide rates in the world, respectively.  Gang violence and the threat of sexual assault present for children besides a lack of safety in society is a barrier to education. Because of the violence in society and lack of protection, children fear facing the gang members once at school and choose to hide at home. It is this widespread violence and fear that causes children to choose to migrate to Mexico because they are no longer able to live like “normal” children in a safe society. Instead of focusing on their schoolwork, they have to focus on survival.

Mexico is commonly viewed as a transit country for migrants traveling to the United States. However in recent years, Mexico has received an influx of claims for asylum and international protection. In 2014, Mexico received 2,100 claims and in the first 11 months of 2015 it received 3,044 claims. By law Mexico offers protection to refugees. Child migrants can apply for a humanitarian visa, which allows them to live in Mexico for one year, which can be renewed, as well as apply for asylum. However, even though child refugees escaping violence can rightfully gain asylum, many face difficulties claiming their refugee status. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported according to the ‘Mexican government […] less than one per cent of children who are apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities are recognised as refugees or receive other formal protection in Mexico.’ Once children are apprehended by the National Institute of Migration (INM), they are rarely informed of their right to seek refugee recognition. A 2014 UNHCR study found that two-thirds of undocumented Central American children in Mexico are not informed of their rights by INM agents.

Mexico’s Immigration Law declares once children are apprehended, it is protocol to send them to shelters if their status as a refugee does not satisfy an INM agent. They remain there until the person can ‘regularise his or her status or be returned to his or her country of origin.’ The Immigration Law allows migrants to be detained for 15 working days, which can be extended to 60 days if there are difficulties in obtaining travel documents for example. However, there is no limit on detention sentences if a migrant requests administrative or judicial review which is often the case when requesting asylum. Most of these children are held in detention without access to education and live in unsanitary and uncomfortable conditions. Detainees often experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress due to verbal abuse from officers, unsanitary conditions, etc., which can be particularly detrimental to children’s development. Yet the practice of detention is considered a norm in Mexican immigration for the goal is not to grant asylum but to ‘stem the flow’ of migration.

This practice of simply stemming migration flow is influenced by funding from the United States in 2014 with the goal of  ‘increased immigration enforcement.’ The US funded Mexican border security and migration-control programs from 2008, spending $2.5 billion in assistance. With American funding and Mexico’s creation of the Programa Frontera Sur (Southern Border Program), there have been increasing numbers of deportations instead of grants of asylum. In 2014, Mexico deported 18,169 children — a 117 per cent increase from 2013. Border control has received a majority of funding instead of institutions like the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), which only received an increase of four per cent funding between 2014 and 2015. This pattern of favouring deportation instead of humanitarian assistance to those who qualify does not address the root of the problem of migration and only leaves those in danger more vulnerable.

Child migration in Central America has increased in the past decade, particularly in the Northern Triangle due to widespread drug violence. Without the protection of local police and the government, children often have no other choice but to seek refuge in Mexico. Unfortunately a majority do not receive the refugee status they legally deserve. Mexican border control, with American funding, has placed a higher importance on detention and deportation in order to curb the influx of immigrants. However, this does not solve the problem of mass migration. Migration stems from widespread gang violence and corrupt government, and simply turning away children who legally deserve humanitarian protection will not solve anything. Mexico should increase funding to agencies like COMAR that work with asylum seekers instead of funding the INM which continues to mistreat migrants in detention centres. Ultimately, child migration to Mexico follows a similar trend of other migration “crises” such as the European Refugee Crisis. Countries are increasingly pushing away those who legally deserve humanitarian protection.