Nearly 3,000 children — many of them babies and toddlers — have been separated from their parents and detained in recent weeks along the southwestern U.S. border. The number of those children still in government custody remains unclear. In late June, there were 11,786 children under age 18 in detention, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement. UNICEF USA condemns this cruel and unacceptable practice and demands immediate and open access to all facilities housing children to ensure they get the care and essential services they need to stay safe and healthy.
These events are just the most recent developments in a large-scale crisis for some 6.3 million children from Latin America and the Caribbean, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, who face life-threatening situations and multiple forms of violence. As these children continue to seek sanctuary in the U.S., UNICEF and UNICEF USA are mobilizing to meet their evolving needs.
For many years, UNICEF offices in Central America have been working to strengthen national protection systems and address the root causes of migration. Yet parents desperate to find safety for their children continue to seek asylum in the U.S., and so UNICEF's vital programs will move with them.
UNICEF is bringing its decades of humanitarian expertise to help vulnerable immigrant children in the U.S.
Four years in the making, the program is rooted in evidence-based strategies that follow UNICEF's proven approach to addressing the needs of vulnerable children caught in the international refugee and migrant crisis.
UNICEF USA, in consultation with partners, will work to support the strengthening and expansion of partners' good work and existing protection measures for immigrant children who have crossed the border into the U.S. These activities include:
- Alternatives to Detention: pilot alternative care model and train U.S. officials on child-friendly and child rights procedures
- Strengthening Sponsor System: develop and pilot a system to screen, assess and support the placement of children without sponsors; roll out standardized case management mechanisms on supervision of unaccompanied migrant children; develop a system of screen volunteers to support the reintegration of children with their sponsors
- Legal Assistance: support the expansion of legal aid for children in immigration proceedings by growing networks of pro bono lawyers to provide legal support to unaccompanied and separated children and train judges and government authorities in specific courts to consider the best interest of the child
- Advocacy: develop advocacy and communication campaign promoting the message that migrant children are children first; advocate for the equal treatment of children; brief congressional members on the situation in the region
As displaced and migrant children seeking safety make the dangerous journey across the border into the U.S., UNICEF will be there to support them every step of the way
UNICEF's approach is rooted in six strategic policy objectives:
- End the detention of children seeking international protection
- Keep families together as the best way to protect children
- Protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence
- Keep all refugee and migrant children learning, with access to health and other services
- Press for action on the underlying causes of large-scale movements of refugees and migrants
- Promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization in countries and areas of transit, destination and return
UNICEF works to keep children in school, make schools safe, strengthen community centers and collaborate with local government, community partners and faith-based organizations to provide psychosocial support to children affected by gang violence. UNICEF also coordinates with consular authorities to ensure the protection of children abroad and with migration and child protection bodies to establish and implement standards on the treatment of migrant children.
UNICEF's comprehensive approach addresses the rights of children in countries of origin (preventing and responding to violence and improving opportunities), during transit (ensuring access to services, case management and appropriate care), during reintegration (if they are returned to their home communities) or at their destination (in this case, social integration and non-discrimination in the U.S.).
Top photo: UNICEF is working with local partners to support the needs of migrants at emergency shelters like this one, run by Sister Norma Pimentel, at the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas. © UNICEF USA