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

Fleeing stifling poverty, extreme violence and intimidation, every day Central American children make the difficult decision to leave home in search of safety and a better life. Along the way, they risk being kidnapped, trafficked, raped or killed. 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, Uprooted in Central America and Mexico.

“Millions of children in the region are victims of poverty, indifference, violence, forced migration and the fear of deportation," said María Cristina Perceval, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. "In many cases, children who are sent back to their countries have no home to return to, end up deep in debt or are targeted by gangs. Being returned to impossible situations makes it more likely they will migrate again."

The facts are grim.

Between 2016 and mid-2018, 68,409 migrant children were detained in Mexico, 91 percent of whom were deported to Central America. Some 96,216 migrants from northern Central America, including 24,189 women and children, were returned from Mexico and the U.S. between January and June 2018. More than 90 percent were deported from Mexico.

Source: International Organization for Migration, Migrant Routes from Central America to the United States, 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. In May 2018, the U.S. southern border crossing became even more hazardous when over 2,000 migrant children were detained and separated from their families, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and creating toxic stress that threatens to harm their long-term development.  

UNICEF is using its decades of humanitarian expertise to help vulnerable immigrant children in the U.S. UNICEF USA and partners work to support and expand existing protection measures, which include alternatives to detention, legal assistance, advocacy and the strengthening of the sponsor system.

To help alleviate the root causes of the crisis, UNICEF is working with governments in Central America and Mexico to protect children from violence, crime and other threats and support education and health programs. UNICEF also advocates for the protection of children's rights throughout their journeys.