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Imagine that you are a parent living in a town riddled with gang violence, organized crime, extortion and poverty. You are faced with these two options:
Do you continue trying to raise them there, in the only home your children have ever known, keeping your head down and doing your best to keep them safe?
Or do you expose them to the many risks of migration — everything from possible exploitation, violence and extortion to hunger, dehydration and detention — in hopes of giving them a better life?
Every day, parents in northern Central America wrestle with this very dilemma, just as increasingly disturbing news accounts of the hazards migrant families face — some of them lethal — broadcast the dangers.
From October 2018 to February 2019, 57,000 migrants — including 14,500 children — braved those hazards to travel north into Mexico. Nearly 4,000 children who were part of that migration wave faced those perils alone.
Thankfully, they have many UNICEF champions stationed along the routes they travel to protect them and their rights — like UNICEF Mexico Child Protection Officer Karla Gallo.
“For me, working at UNICEF is more than just a job," says Gallo. "It’s a passion. It’s a way of living. It’s something that marks your life, because you have the opportunity to influence change and improve lives. For me that’s the most valuable thing.”
UNICEF works with the networks of shelters located along migration routes to help all children, including those travelling alone, survive their journeys. Without a parent to keep them safe, children who travel alone are especially at risk. They can all too easily fall victim to a number of hazards.
"They really suffer many hardships along the way," Gallo explains. "They can have accidents, be victims of organized crime, be exploited and kidnapped.”
Key to helping them recover and addressing their needs is the principal foundation for all of UNICEF’s work: Children are born with inalienable rights and those rights travel with them wherever they go.
“Children don’t lose the guarantee of their rights because they have crossed Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico," says Gallo. "This is why all the countries of origin, transit and destination should be working first to identify a child who travels alone — or even with his or her family — to determine what’s in his or her best interest.”
Even though I’m alone, I don't feel alone," says a 17-year-old from Honduras. "There’s always someone protecting me.
Building upon its strong presence in Tapachula, Chiapas, Ciudad Hidalgo and Tijuana and its collaboration with the Mexican Government and partners, UNICEF monitors the treatment of refugee and migrant children to ensure that they receive appropriate support and services.
“What we do is to work with the entire network of shelters throughout the migration route on different fronts," explains Gallo. "One is psychosocial care, because children are very emotionally affected as they sometimes flee from violence." UNICEF workers like Gallo also ensure that children are treated for dehydration, exhaustion and other conditions or illnesses they may have contracted en route.
According to Mexican 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 coordinates with shelters and case managers to ensure that migrant children are placed in appropriate alternative care settings
Thanks to the success of an open-door shelter UNICEF supports in Tabasco, which offers children counseling and emotional support, education and health services and legal information and assistance, UNICEF is now partnering with the Mexican government to develop open-door shelters on a national scale to help end the detention of migrant children
ENSURE CHILDREN STAY HEALTHY AND SAFE:
- Migrating 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
- UNICEF operates activity centers where children can go daily to play, relax and receive counseling, and provides temporary water, sanitation and hygiene facilities for families at some transit points
PROVIDE INFORMATION TO UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN AND FAMILIES ABOUT THEIR OPTIONS:
- Children traveling without a parent may face years of uncertainty as their cases go before immigration courts. UNICEF staffers arm detained children with facts to help them know how to proceed
- UNICEF advocates that all unaccompanied children receive a humanitarian visitor's card, which provides access to family- and community-based alternative care and social services
ADDRESS MIGRATION’S ROOT CAUSES — POVERTY, CRIME, VIOLENCE, EXTORTION, SEXUAL ABUSE, LIMITED OPPORTUNITY AND SOCIAL SERVICES:
- For many years, UNICEF offices in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have expanded their efforts to break the cycle of violence and poverty that drives so many desperate families to leave home. UNICEF works to reduce violence through the creation of safe spaces and alternative education programs and vocational opportunities
- UNICEF works with municipal governments and schools in Central America to set up safe spaces where kids and teens 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 have been 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
Top photo: UNICEF Mexico Child Protection Officer Karla Gallo (right) with Paloma Escudero, UNICEF Director of Communications, at the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico. © UNICEF/UN0284809/Bindra