Eitan Peled, Migration & Protection Program Manager for UNICEF USA, recently spoke with Pressia Arifin-Cabo, UNICEF Mexico Deputy Representative, about how UNICEF is working to protect vulnerable children on the move — often unaccompanied by parents — in the midst of a global pandemic. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
EITAN PELED: Hello! Please tell us about yourself and your role with UNICEF.
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: I am the deputy country representative for UNICEF Mexico, so I head all UNICEF programs in the country. Migration is a major focus, and probably will be for the next five years or longer. I joined UNICEF in 2014. Before that, I was an emergency specialist in South Asia. I’m originally from the Philippines.
EITAN PELED: Over the past couple of years, there's been a lot of talk about forced migration from Central America to Mexico and the U.S. Why is it “forced?”
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: It’s important to understand what it means to travel north from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. I worked in Guatemala before I joined UNICEF in 2014, so I am fully aware of the poverty and the high rates of violence in that country. Many people, especially children, don't really have much of a choice but to leave. So many children cannot get enough food or proper care. And so they leave for other places where maybe they can have a better quality of life. They head north hoping to cross into the United States.
And it is not an easy trip. Some of them, well, some of the lucky ones get to pass, but the unlucky ones also encounter a lot of violence along the way, because of the organized crime groups that operate all along the route. It is not an easy choice to leave home, especially with young children. But it’s even riskier to stay.
EITAN PELED: These are really dire circumstances. What really sticks out is the lack of choices these kids have. There are so many stories about gangs recruiting kids as young as 6, 8, 10 years old. Plying them with cell phones, grooming them. Young girls being sexually exploited, pressured to be a gang member’s ‘girlfriend.’ The gangs know these kids’ parents are struggling to put food on the table.
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: And the situation has only gotten worse.
EITAN PELED: Which is why it is so important that we have a unified UNICEF approach across the sub region — colleagues in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and in the U.S. all working together so that as families migrate across borders, UNICEF maintains access to the children at every point along the journey, making sure they have access to shelter and safe spaces, providing the mental health and psychosocial support they need in order to recover from whatever traumas they’ve experienced, and mitigating situations where there may be trafficking and exploitation. Tell me: What impact has COVID-19 had on all these efforts?
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: Remember, Eitan, when you traveled with me and the rest of the team in Tijuana, and then Ciudad Juàrez, you saw for yourself how crowded the shelters were, you saw how desperate people were waiting for their turn in the asylum process, especially in that makeshift camp from Matamoros, in tents with the cold weather and the heat and the floods, and the agony of waiting. All of that has just gotten worse. Because with COVID, the asylum process has been interrupted. UNICEF is very concerned about the at-risk children who cannot leave Mexico due to the outbreak. What really concerns me is that this waiting also comes with the threat of violence from organized crime.
Since mid-March, more than 6,500 unaccompanied children were returned from the United States to Mexico without due process. This shouldn't happen. Returning children during a pandemic is not only a question of child protection, it's a public health concern. There needs to be a lot more thought put into protecting these children for their health, of course, but also protecting them from violence. These children, once returned by U.S. authorities to Mexico, are not only at greater risk of being exposed to COVID, they are also vulnerable to kidnapping, extortion and other forms of violence and exploitation.
These children, once returned by U.S. authorities to Mexico, are not only at greater risk of being exposed to COVID, they are also vulnerable to kidnapping, extortion and other forms of violence and exploitation.
This is where UNICEF Mexico is really stepping up. We're working with the shelters to ensure that these children can be received; that there is a protocol to ensure that they are tested for COVID and that these shelters know what to do if someone tests positive. We have distributed hygiene kits and materials to ensure that best hygiene practices are being observed in the shelters. Of course we also recognize our limitations.
EITAN PELED: What limitations?
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: Our staff cannot visit the shelters in person the way that they could pre-COVID. So we have been using innovative ways to reach migrant children and adolescents, like remote psychosocial support. But where we are really concentrating, where we have a lot of follow-up, is with our case management — identifying the vulnerable children who need protection and making sure they are getting what they need; working with the government to make sure every child’s rights are protected.
To have meaningful impact requires resources that currently the world doesn’t have. So that’s a challenge. But UNICEF will not stop.
The challenge is that we are strapped now more than ever. In any other emergency you could probably get resources from other countries or other places but COVID has struck us all. To take action, and to have meaningful impact, requires resources that currently the world doesn’t have. So that’s a challenge. But UNICEF will not stop.
EITAN PELED: Detention was bad for kids before COVID. Add to that the potential spread of the coronavirus and it’s especially scary. And now asylum-seeking kids and families are being summarily returned either to Mexico or to places in Central America that do not have the capacity to effectively quarantine or otherwise prevent the spread of the virus.
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: Right. In Mexico, migration detention centers are so cramped. There's no access to health care and sometimes there isn’t enough food. There’s no way to control the spread of coronavirus. Children should not be detained at any time, but especially not now, during a public health emergency.
EITAN PELED: UNICEF doesn’t just say no to detention, we are also piloting alternative care programs. How are those going?
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: We’ve been working with the government to provide alternatives to detention centers, suitable forms of care — family-based care, community-based care instead of institutions or closed-door shelters. You have been to the border areas. You have seen how it's not beneficial for children to stay in enclosed spaces, where they are not allowed to go to school or play outside. We are looking at having children stay with foster families or in open-door shelters so that they have options to continue studying and playing with friends, and just live their lives.
So far, the government in Mexico has been receptive. They have understood that it's also not very good to keep these children in institutions. And so we're really hoping we can scale this up in all of the border areas.
EITAN PELED: That really speaks to the importance of UNICEF’s work advocating for an end to policies like detention, in combination with the programs. It not only protects the kids, it protects UNICEF workers and government staff, while allowing them to maintain access to the kids so that support services can continue.
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: Absolutely.
EITAN PELED: Can you talk about how UNICEF has been able to quickly shift in-person mental health support in Mexico to a kind of remote support?
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: I would not say that we're shifting but rather that we're intensifying the work. It’s a real challenge to do things remotely, but we have figured out a way to use technology to provide support. We are using technology to support migrant education as well.
Of course, there are still some things we need to do in person. The distribution of hygiene kits is not something you can do by robot. We need to be there, to explain how to use the materials, to demonstrate proper hand washing. For other interventions, UNICEF staff still needs to be there talking to authorities, especially on the Southern border where technology is not flourishing. We still need to go to meetings in person. And I really admire my team for having the courage, despite the threat of the disease, to still do these things.
EITAN PELED: What is your message to supporters? How can they help?
PRESSIA ARIFIN-CABO: For UNICEF to continue this important work, we need funding, of course, but we also need people to speak up and become advocates for children and for children’s rights, especially migrant children.
Top photo: A UNICEF staffer stands by the Suchiate River at the Mexico-Guatemala border, a popular crossing point along the migration route. Pandemic conditions are complicating efforts to keep migrant kids safe and their rights protected. © UNICEF / Adriana Arce