At the age 16, Alexis packed his meager belongings and hit the road, hoping to escape the bitter poverty in which he grew up in Honduras. But for Alexis, the journey ended in Mexico, when he fell off a freight train and lost his right leg.
At the age 16, Alexis and a cousin packed their meager belongings and hit the road, hoping to escape the bitter poverty in which they grew up in Honduras. But for Alexis, the journey ended in Mexico, when he fell off a freight train, losing his right leg.
© UNICEF/UN028113/Zehbrauskas

Every month, fleeing violent gangs and stifling poverty, thousands of Central American children risk being kidnapped, trafficked, raped or killed during dangerous journeys to the United States. Most come from the countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

There is no sign this trend is letting up, as UNICEF vividly details in a report, Broken Dreams: Central American Children’s Dangerous Journey to the United States.

“It is heartrending to think of these children — most of them teenagers, but some even younger — making the grueling and extremely dangerous journey in search of safety and a better life,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth. “This flow of young refugees and migrants highlights the critical importance of tackling the violence and socioeconomic conditions in their countries of origin.”

The facts are grim.

In 2016, the number of Central American migrant children travelling through Mexico remained high (the number of children detected in 2015 was 35,000 and in the first 10 months of 2016, it reached almost 31,000). Children are migrating for family reunification purposes, are in search of new social and economic opportunities or are running away from increasing violence in their country of origin. 

Source: International Organization for Migration, Migrant Routes from Central America to the United States, 2016

Approximately 16,000 children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were apprehended in Mexico in the first six months of 2016.

Even if they reach the U.S., these children confront new risks. Children traveling with a parent risk swift deportation or months of detention. Unaccompanied children apprehended in the U.S. are guaranteed an immigration court hearing, but are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney.

To help put an end to the crisis, UNICEF works with governments in Central America and Mexico to try to alleviate these causes. Through various programs, it strengthens services that reduce the vulnerability of children to violence, crime and other threats, and supports programs for education and health, with special focus on the most affected and vulnerable communities.

UNICEF also advocates for the protection of children's rights throughout their journey, and for governments to provide assistance to returnee children.

Children on the Run