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Gema Jimenez: Fierce Protector of Migrant Children — and Their Rights

May 31, 2019

UNICEF Mexico’s Gema Jimenez helps Central American migrant children build resilience on their long, difficult journeys toward a brighter future.

Every day, pervasive violence and poverty drive Central American families to set off for Mexico or the U.S. in search of safety and a better life. Sadly, somewhere in the course of their long, often dangerous, journeys, many families and children travelling alone run the risk of ending up in detention or trapped in limbo — too afraid to go home and unable to move on. 

For children who are dehydrated and exhausted after traveling for weeks, the prolonged uncertainty of migration can be a dispiriting, traumatic experience. Luckily, child protection officers like UNICEF Mexico's Gema Jimenez are there to look out for them and get them the care and protection they need.  

"If I see that something is not right, I just want to do something about it," says Jimenez, who works helping migrant children on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. "I cannot stay quiet.”

Although Mexico is increasingly working to safeguard the rights of all children, whether they are seeking asylum in the country or just passing through, challenges persist. As of early February, conditions at the Tapachula migration station, where 1,000 men, women and children were being held, were inadequate.

Mothers and children were seen sleeping on the floor. Many interviewed reported that they did not know what would happen next or when they would be allowed to leave. 

Migrant families wait for fast-track humanitarian visas at the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. The one-year visa allows migrants to stay in Mexico, work and access social services.  © UNICEF/UN0278802/Bindra

To help them live with that uncertainty and stay healthy, UNICEF protection workers like Jimenez make the rounds, checking in at UNICEF's Tapachula Child-Friendly Space and other places where migrant families are staying, to see how children are coping — and how they can help.  

"Migrant children have suffered persecution, have fled, have left everything behind," says Jimenez. "It’s a privilege and honor to work defending their rights."

This young mother waits for a Mexican humanitarian visa with her 1-year-old son at a UNICEF-supported shelter for unaccompanied migrant girls in Tapachula. The 17-year-old traveled on her own from Honduras in hopes of giving herself and her baby a better life, but because she's still a minor, she and her child must stay at the shelter until her 18th birthday. "I believe I can find my future in America," she says. © UNICEF/UN0278771/Bindra

On one visit to UNICEF's Tapachula Child-Friendly Space, Jimenez made sure that families were getting what they needed. When food and water were scarce, she raised the alarm. When children were sick or hurt, she accompanied them to the health unit for medical treatment. Jimenez sees to children's physical needs, but she's just as attentive to their emotional well-being and is always on the lookout for signs of psychic distress. 

"UNICEF has developed very specialized materials and games to work with migrant children," says Jimenez of the Child-Friendly Space activities designed to be fun and healing. "It has been proven that these activities promote their self-esteem and also their resilience.”

This 16-year-old girl holds the t-shirt she brought from home in Honduras to wear once she arrives at her ultimate destination — the U.S. Now staying at a UNICEF-supported shelter for unaccompanied migrant girls in Tapachula, Mexico, she longs for the day when she'll get the chance to wear it. © UNICEF/UN0279915/Bindra

According to Mexico government statistics, more than 30,000 children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador ended up in detention centers in 2018.  UNICEF is on the ground working to safeguard them and all children, both at home and throughout their journeys.  

Here are some of the ways UNICEF helps ...

Promote alternatives to detention:
  • UNICEF is working to scale up foster care programs and other solutions for families
Ensure children stay healthy and safe:
  • Children apprehended in Mexico may end up detained for weeks, even months. UNICEF visits closed-door shelters to make sure children receive proper nutrition, health care, counseling and learning materials
Provide legal assistance:
  • Migrant children traveling without a parent may face years of uncertainty as their cases go before immigration courts. UNICEF staffers make sure detained children know they have the right to request asylum
  • UNICEF connects children who are migrating on their own with networks of pro bono lawyers who can advocate for them in court
Address migration’s root causes — poverty, crime, violence, extortion, sexual abuse, limited opportunity and social services 
  • For many years, UNICEF has advocated for investment in national child protection systems and helped reduce exploitation and violence in Central America and Mexico
  • UNICEF works with municipal governments and schools in Central America to give kids and teens safe spaces where they can play, learn and get vocational training, free from gang-related threats. UNICEF also helps former gang members find their way back into the community via drug and alcohol abuse counseling, job training programs and help with the removal of gang tattoos
  • In Guatemala, UNICEF and partners support cash assistance programs for families to ensure that children living in poverty receive health services and education
  • UNICEF helps migrant children and young people who are deported cope with the trauma and stigma that may await them back home. In El Salvador, for example, UNICEF sees that returning families and children get legal assistance, emotional counseling and other forms of support