Children – no matter where they come from or what their migration status – are children first and foremost.
Since early May, more than 2,000 children, including babies and toddlers, have been separated from their parents at the U.S. border and placed in detention centres.
“Stories of children, some of them just babies, being separated from their parents as they seek safety in the US are heartbreaking.” says UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
Around the world, 50 million children are on the move, crossing dangerous borders and struggling to survive. Migrant children and families from Latin America and the Caribbean, largely from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, face life-threatening situations everyday. They are seeking to get away from violence and poverty and are left with no option but to flee their homes. These children have the right to be protected, access essential services, and be with their families – just like all children. It is the realization of these rights that gives every child the best chance at a healthy, happy and productive future.
Children on the move need to be protected and supported at every step along the way — in their home countries, in transit and across borders. These are the stories of these children:
Nering: “Here, we live in fear.”
Nering, 15, is from Northern Honduras. Soon he will try to make his way to the United States. He says he is fully aware of the dangers he will face but points out that he lives with danger every day in his gang-run neighbourhood in northern Honduras.
“Here, we live in fear,” he says. His sister was grabbed by unknown assailants and killed. Outside the youth outreach centre where he likes to hang out, five teenagers – aged 14 to 19 – were gunned down in the street. And the grocer around the corner was shot. The list goes on. Says Nering: “I’ve thought of it a lot. I will go.”
Alexei, Honduras: “There is a lot of poverty here, and there are a lot of gangs.”
Alexei, 13, in his neighbourhood of Colonia Rivera Hernandez. Adriana Zehbrauskas/Honduras/2016.
Thirteen-year-old Alexei recently tried to make it to the United States with his mother and a brother, but only got as far as Guatemala. He won’t say exactly why they decided to turn back, simply that “things got ugly.” Alexei and his family were fleeing poverty and violence, “There is a lot of poverty here, and there are a lot of gangs,” says Alexei.
His neighbourhood – Colonia Rivera Hernandez- is one of the toughest in Honduras, a country that has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. The neighbourhood is run by violent gangs, who often force teenagers to join their ranks. Asked if he enjoys school, Alexei shrugs. “More or less … less because sometimes when I go to school all I have is a cup of coffee and some biscuits.”
Alexis and Jackie, Honduras: “I wanted to get there and work and help my brothers and sisters and my mother.”
Alexis and his sister Jackie in their family home. Adriana Zehbrauskas/Honduras/2016.
When he was 16, Alexis and a cousin packed their meagre belongings and hit the road, hoping to escape the bitter poverty in which they grew up in Honduras. They had hoped to make it to the United States. But for Alexis, the journey ended in Mexico, when he fell off a freight train and lost his right leg – not an uncommon injury on the notorious route. Now, he is back home – a wood and corrugated iron shack built on a slope that turns into mud every time it rains.
His mother and his teenage siblings work odd jobs when they can find them, harvesting chilies, taking care of other people’s children or helping out in food stalls. Getting to the United States, was about more than just “an American dream,” says Alexis. “It’s about getting out of the country, which has so much poverty. I wanted to get there and work and help my brothers and sisters and my mother.”
Alexis who is now 18, sometimes joins a local UNICEF-supported outreach group to tell other young people about the dangers of the journey. But he’s convinced his own siblings will eventually try to head north. “For the same reason I left here, my brothers and sisters could do the same one day, because of poverty, because you sometimes spend days without eating. There’s not enough money to go to college, only to primary school, then it’s over.” His fears for the future: “That things continue the way they are. That my siblings continue to live this way, with this poverty. It would be horrible.”
Nakisha, Honduras: “Where I live there are gangs … They’re the ones who rule here.”
Sisters Ashley, 9, and Nakisha, 15, on the porch of their home. Adriana Zehbrauskas/Honduras/2016.
At the age of 15, Nakisha – a member of Honduras’ minority Afro-Caribbean community – is used to acting as a parent to her two younger siblings. Her single mother is often out of the house, working in neighbouring countries or making her way to the United States – which she attempted at least four times. The situation at home is dire. “Where I live there are gangs … They’re the ones who rule here,” says Nakisha. “They look for children from the community to bring them into their gang. I have a cousin who converted, he’s in the gang now, and he’s only 12 years old. Now they’re looking for him, to kill him … A friend of his was just killed.”
Nakisha would love to get away from it all, study and get a job as a nurse to support her family. But she says she is too scared to make the perilous journey to the United States again. She had tried it once with her mother, her 3-year-old brother, her 8-year-old sister and a cousin. They were attacked on a couple of occasions, narrowly escaped arrest several times but eventually made it across the Rio Grande river that separates Mexico from the United States, only to be sent back by immigration authorities.
While riding a freight train in Mexico, she saw a boy who fell off and “was cut in two.” Nakisha says she never wants to travel that way again. “I want to go one day, but with the proper papers … I want to go, because of high school, college and all that.”
What UNICEF is doing:
A boy walking on train tracks. Georgiev/Serbia/2015
Tackling the root causes at home
UNICEF is working in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to improve the lives of children and families, reduce poverty and address violence. UNICEF works to keep children in school, make schools safe, strengthen community centers and provides psychosocial support to children affected by gang violence.
Protecting children on the move
UNICEF is working to makes sure that the rights of migrant children are respected throughout their journey. UNICEF is working to ensure governments treat migrant children as children in need of special protection.
UNICEF works Governments across the Americas to protect children and sure they are treated well. This is especially important for children in detention and those being returned to their home countries. UNICEF is fighting to ensure that children are treated as a children and not judged by their migration status.
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