In recent months, the progress of the many people traveling in migrant caravans from Central America has captured the hearts and minds of Americans. Today, as we celebrate International Migrants’ Day, I urge all Americans to treat with dignity and compassion all those who have had to make the difficult decision to leave everything they know behind.
I urge all Americans to treat with dignity and compassion all those who have had to make the difficult decision to leave everything they know behind.
Every day, children and families from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras embark on the perilous journey northward in search of a better life. They leave because staying means enduring horrific violence, widespread poverty and a lack of job opportunities. Hoping for safety in numbers, families leave home in large groups, or caravans. Along the way, they face dehydration, sickness, hunger and extreme temperatures. They are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and truly rely on the kindness of strangers, carrying on day by day nourished by the hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Just last Friday, I returned from a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, where the fate of more than 6,000 migrant children and families remains uncertain. The city opened Benito Juarez Stadium as a makeshift shelter last month, but due to overcrowding, it has been shut down — leaving some families left to set up tents in the streets outside the complex. Having journeyed so long, they don’t want to be any farther from the border. The conditions are tough.
No matter where they are or where they are from, all children have the right to health, safety and education.
Other families had moved to a camp called El Barretal, located on the outskirts of the city. It is where UNICEF Mexico is providing safe spaces for families — a respite from the stress and trauma of their journeys, where children can play games and sports and just be kids again, and mothers can rest, breastfeed in private and receive health attention. The UNICEF team is also providing safe drinking water and setting up separate bathrooms for boys and girls, as well as handwashing stations to prevent the spread of disease.
It was heartwarming to see a wall covered with welcoming messages from the children of Tijuana to the newly arrived children from Honduras and El Salvador, who then post letters thanking the Mexican kids for their kindness and hospitality. I was also moved by the incredible resilience of the women I met, who have faced so much adversity.
These families do not know what tomorrow will bring. They just know they cannot go back and must simply have faith that a brighter future lays ahead.
The toughest part is knowing it’s a waiting game. These families do not know what tomorrow will bring. They just know they cannot go back and must simply have faith that a brighter future lays ahead. One woman, who had fled domestic violence, shared with me the sense of relief and safety she felt being at the shelter. “I just want to find a place where I can work and support my family,” she told me, and I feel that’s something all women and mothers can relate to.
Migration is one of the defining issues of our era. UNICEF is working around the world to protect migrant children and families at every step of the way —addressing root causes in their home countries, offering essential services along migration routes and providing support in their countries of destination. No matter where they are or where they are from, all children have the right to health, safety and education.
This holiday season, I hope Americans will open their hearts to the plight of all uprooted children.
With all the political discussion surrounding the migration crisis at our borders and around the world, we must remember that children are children — we need to put them first. This holiday season, I hope Americans will open their hearts to the plight of all uprooted children. I implore decision-makers to keep the best interests of children at the heart of every decision. This is not a political issue. This is a moral obligation. Every child deserves to have a childhood and the opportunity to reach their full potential.
UNICEF and partners are working tirelessly in Mexico, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Bangladesh and around the world to save and protect children. With a presence in 190 countries and territories, UNICEF has helped save more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world.
Top photo: UNICEF USA President and CEO M. Stern recently returned from Tijuana, Mexico, where UNICEF Mexico is providing humanitarian relief for children and families traveling in migrant caravans from Central America. © UNICEF Mexico