Kids in El Salvador face multiple threats to their safety and well being, including gang violence that forces many children and families to flee.

Inside Look: Coping With COVID-19 in El Salvador

UNICEF USA catches up with Deputy Country Representative Begona Arellano to learn more about how UNICEF has been supporting returning migrants and other vulnerable kids in the country during the pandemic.

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Eitan Peled, who manages UNICEF USA's Child Migration and Protection Program, recently spoke to Begona Arellano, UNICEF El Salvador Deputy Representative, about how UNICEF is working with partners to ease reintegration for returning migrants, support children’s education and mental health and keep them safe from harm in a country with a history of gang violence. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with UNICEF? 

BEGONA ARELLANO: I am originally from Spain. I have been working for UNICEF for around 12 years in different positions, mainly in Central America and the Caribbean region, sometimes in countries with high rates of migration. I have worked in the Dominican Republic, I’ve worked in Cuba and for the past four years I’ve been working in El Salvador, doing program management. As deputy country representative in El Salvador, I coordinate and supervise programs and have a key role in issues related to migration. I also do child protection work for UNICEF’s Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office.

What is the COVID situation in El Salvador?

BEGONA ARELLANO: We don't have many confirmed cases — about 27,000. About 800 people have died. The testing capacity in this country is very limited. So there may be cases we don’t know about.

From the 15th of March through July we were in lockdown, and during that time, almost all economic activity stopped, but now we are gradually reopening. The schools are still closed and they will be closed until the end of the current school year, which in El Salvador runs February to November.

UNICEF distributes materials to help kids stay engaged while at home during COVID-19 lockdown.

UNICEF works with local partners in El Salvador to distribute materials that help kids stay engaged while at home during COVID-19 lockdown. © UNICEF El Salvador

The Ministry of Education has taken measures with UNICEF's support to provide all the education modalities children need so they can keep learning — lessons delivered on television, radio and online. But this is quite challenging because the most disadvantaged children, the most vulnerable, do not have internet access. The situation is complex.

UNICEF is also concerned about violence against children, because anxiety levels are high. Children are home with parents who are stressed because they have lost their jobs, they have lost livelihoods, they have lost salaries. There is evidence that there has been an increase in violence at home and the number of cases of sexual violence. There are also consequences for mental health of families, of children, as well. That has been quite an important issue.

For returning migrants — migrants from El Salvador who are being deported back here, in some cases after having lived in the U.S. or in Europe for years — UNICEF is helping the government improve conditions and services at the state-run facilities where returning migrants are quarantined. UNICEF has helped provide psychosocial support to returning migrants as well, because many arrive here after spending a long time in detention. So they need help recovering from that.

There were high rates of violence against children before COVID. This is the reason so many migrate, sometimes without their parents?

BEGONA ARELLANO: Yes. The main factor is violence. Not only violence at home but especially violence in the communities, created by gangs. Gang fights for territorial control have continued, even in lockdown, even in this health crisis.… So people feel the need to flee.

There is internal displacement, but this is a very small country. It is very difficult to escape from the gangs if you stay in the country, so people feel the need to leave. The borders have been closed so it hasn’t been easy to leave, but now borders are opening. With the economy at a standstill, poverty has gotten worse too.

With territories controlled by warring gangs, that means gangs essentially control the economy too?

BEGONA ARELLANO: Yes. There is rampant extortion, gangs demanding payments from informal workers, from everybody, really. Many families live on remittances from family members working in the U.S. or in Europe, and we expect those remittances to decrease over time [due to economic hardships related to COVID-19].

It's understandable, then, that a typical adolescent or teenager living in San Salvador would feel as if they had no choice but to migrate.

BEGONA ARELLANO: That is the situation. The adolescents here, many of them live in very violent environments. They have lots of difficulties. Many teenage girls are already mothers. Many have been victims of sexual abuse. Many feel there are no opportunities for them here. They feel they cannot get a good education.

Kids that receive support from UNICEF — psychosocial support, or some funds to ensure they continue in school, or can start a business — have had their lives changed completely.

On a more positive note, kids that receive support from UNICEF — psychosocial support, or some funds to ensure they continue in school, or can start a business — have had their lives changed completely, so much so that they decide to stay here and become more rooted to the country rather than feel like they have to flee.

Can you highlight one of the programs that you mentioned that help people feel safe at home?

BEGONA ARELLANO: In El Salvador we have been working with different municipalities that have high rates of violence and high rates of returning migrants, with lots of engagement with local authorities and local NGOs. We are focusing on strengthening the social network; giving small grants to students conditioned upon them continuing to go to school, or we have provided seed funds to the creation of a business, or to do some kind of job training.

UNICEF El Salvador supports efforts by local authorities to create safe spaces for children to play.

UNICEF El Salvador supports efforts by local authorities to create safe spaces for children to play. © UNICEF El Salvador

This is what we are doing on the local level with the resources we have. We’d really like to extend it more, and to reach some more municipalities. In the beginning we were providing most of the budget, but now it’s the municipalities. They have adopted the programs, and they are using their own budgets [to fund them]. We are providing them with technical assistance. They are creating safe spaces, because the children had no place where they could play, no place to go safely after school or during the weekends, so we are helping them with that.

We have evaluated the experience and we have seen evidence that it has been successful. The social network is stronger. The levels of violence have decreased. The fathers, the families know how to care for their children.

[Local] authorities are interested in [UNICEF's] programs. They are open to adopting them and to extending them.

What's great is that the [local] authorities are interested in our programs. They are open to adopting them and to extending them.

What an amazing measure of success. This is my favorite thing about how UNICEF works — not just in El Salvador but all over the world: going to the government, working closely with them, piloting these programs, collecting the data, proving that they're successful, and then ultimately, hopefully, putting ourselves out of a job; that the government embraces it and takes it on as a project of their own, because they're really so wonderful for the community.

BEGONA ARELLANO: In middle-income countries, in small offices like this one with a very limited budget, I think that is the smartest way to work. There is no way that UNICEF would have the budget to implement enormous programs. Sometimes the national authorities and community bodies, they have their own budgets as well, and we advise them.

Absolutely, that is amazing work.

Turning back to how UNICEF helps returning migrants, as we’re fighting the battles to make sure child migrants are getting their due process — at the border, while seeking asylum — you and your team are working with the kids who are returned. Can you talk us through what happens when a plane arrives or a bus arrives with a returned child?

BEGONA ARELLANO: When returnees arrive, they are usually coming from either Mexico or the U.S. They pass through the reintegration registry office. They stay there only a few hours. They are registered and provided with a few basics. If a woman or child has suffered sexual abuse or something, for example, they receive immediate attention and some psychosocial support.

When they are registered, they have an interview and they are provided with information about the services that they have at the local level, in the municipalities where they live.

The problem is ... there are no long-term reintegration support programs for adolescents or families.... So this is where UNICEF is focusing. We’re creating a model program.

The problem is that there isn’t any follow up; there are no long-term reintegration support programs for adolescents or families. There are some small-scale initiatives, some [run] by the government, but most of the services are provided by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) which is not really sustainable.

They are doing a great job. And we are trying to help them as much as possible, to try to cover as many people as possible. But that is the main gap, the lack of strong reintegration programs at the local level available for returnees. They arrive at El Salvador, but now they have to go to their own municipality like San Miguel [which is about 80 miles from San Salvador, the country’s capital], and when they arrive in San Miguel, nobody follows up with them and there is no [support] for them.

UNICEF is working with local authorities in El Salvador to develop long-term reintegration support programs for returning migrants.

UNICEF is working with local authorities in El Salvador to develop a long-term reintegration support program for returning migrants, many of whom are children and adolescents who have experienced trauma during their dangerous journeys north. © UNICEF El Salvador

So this is where UNICEF is focusing. We’re creating a model program for reintegration with a national institution called ISNA [Instituto Salvadoreño Para El Desarrollo Integral de La Niñez Y La Adolescencia, Spanish for Institute for the Integral Development of Children and Adolescents] and with help of NGOs, experts in psychosocial support, experts in developing life plans. The Ministry of Education is collaborating with us as well because it is really important, the reintegration back into the school system.

So the work cuts across different UNICEF program areas.

BEGONA ARELLANO: Yes. There’s the mental health support aspect, and there is also education support, particularly for kids who may have some catching up to do because they’ve been out of school for a time.

Sometimes returning migrants have been away for a long time and no longer feel rooted in this country. Some returnees went to the U.S. when they were very young and now they are back and they do not feel at home, and maybe they also feel like their community or family sees them as a failure, because they didn’t make it in the U.S.

And maybe they left because of the gangs, and they are back in the same community and the gangs are still there, the extortionist is still there, so they don't feel safe. They may try to move elsewhere within the country or they may try to migrate again, and the cycle continues.

Getting back to the psychosocial interventions. You were saying how hard it is for these kids to express some of the horrible things that have happened to them, and the importance of helping them do that to help them get back on their feet....

BEGONA ARELLANO: We are doing an intervention that is very innovative. We are doing it with the NGO ConTextos. They have developed a methodology for dealing with these traumas, for sharing experiences through creative writing. Sometimes the families participate. It is very inspiring for them. They feel like a different person afterwards. They say what they have experienced, so they are ready to reintegrate. They feel more empowered, they feel more self aware. Their self esteem increases.

So there is an incredible change when they participate in this methodology. So that is something we’ve been promoting with returnees in some municipalities in the country and it has really been successful. It is a methodology that is getting results.

You have to take into account that these children, usually nobody listens to them or their self esteem is very, very low, and they are very insecure. So, working with them with their self esteem, they improve and they are ready to reintegrate and start a new life.

That’s amazing and uplifting to hear.

BEGONA ARELLANO: Yes, these programs are really making a difference. I’ve had children tell me they have changed their lives. Children tell me they have been able to get back into education, that they have been able to stay away from gangs. And when the government decides to adopt one of the programs we’ve helped introduce, and implement it themselves — that makes us feel like we are heading in the right direction as well.

It’s a process, of course, and sometimes it takes years for results to present themselves, so you have to be prepared for that.

For those reading this interview, what they can do to help?

BEGONA ARELLANO: We need our supporters to keep donating, to keep supporting what we are doing in El Salvador and across the region to protect migrants. It’s important that everybody keeps talking about these issues, about how important it is to protect the rights of every child. We all need to keep advocating for these children, for their protection. It’s essential to our work here.

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Top photo: A young boy in El Salvador, where children face multiple threats to their safety and well-being including gang violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more complex. UNICEF is working with municipal governments and other authorities to develop and implement programs that support and protect vulnerable kids in El Salvador, including returning migrants. © UNICEF/Meléndez