Migrant children fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries are even more vulnerable if they’re deported back once they arrive in the U.S. and Mexico, in part because they return to worse conditions than those that prompted them to leave in the first place, the U.N.’s agency for children said in a report released today.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how much worse it can actually be for people when they are pushed back” to their home countries, said Christopher Tidey, a communication specialist for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a lead author on this latest report. “It’s not just as simple as going home,” he added.
The UNICEF report said the children decide to make the journey north to Mexico and the U.S. from northern Central America — specifically, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where gangs have virtually taken over as the local authority. Their daily lives are marked by poverty and a lack of social services.
These same conditions are intensified and new problems can develop once the U.S. and Mexico decides to deport them, UNICEF said in its report, which includes summaries of interviews it conducted with migrant families.
That migrant children could face worsened conditions upon their forced return isn’t a new idea. But it’s one that could be neglected when it comes to coverage of the region or policy proposals in dealing with the crisis, Tidey told the PBS NewsHour.
Here’s a closer look at the agency’s findings:
Who’s affected, and why do they leave?
Between January and June of this year, UNICEF said more than 96,000 migrants, including more than 24,000 women and children, returned to their home countries after being deported from Mexico and the U.S. And that number appears to be growing, aided in part by the increased cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. under the Southern Border Plan, launched in 2014 to strengthen border security and apprehensions along Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
The majority of migrant children are being pushed back to their home countries from Mexico, in part because of the Southern Border Plan, Tidey said.
Family reunification is another motivating factor for why migrant children leave their home countries. UNICEF cited a 2016 survey that found nearly 32 percent of migrant children who were deported back to their home country of Honduras said reunification with family who had already made the journey north was the main reason for fleeing their home. Of those who were returned to El Salvador, 28 percent said family reunification was their main motivating factor, according to a separate 2018 survey.
What conditions do migrant children face when they’re forced to return to their home countries?
- Crippling debt. The “Northern Triangle” — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — encompasses some of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Migrant children from these countries drove the 2014 surge of unaccompanied minors trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the economy is so poor, migrants are often unable to earn back the money it took to leave. And, they may be left with nothing upon their return, UNICEF said, if they sold their belongings and took out loans to fund their journeys.
- Stigma and alienation. Adults are unable to gain employment after their failed trips to Mexico or the U.S. Children can face depression and hopelessness after being returned and having difficulty reintegrating into the community. One UNICEF representative said that some communities, too, think returned migrant girls were victims of sexual violence, and therefore “are somehow tainted.” “Regardless of the amount of time children have spent outside of their country, migration and reintegration can have negative consequences for their mental health,” the report said.
- Violence. According to interviews it conducted with several migrant children, UNICEF said violence was a “primary motivation for making another attempt at migrating.” Also, some gangs target those who return, believing that they have money.
There are emotional scars, too
UNICEF interviews with migrant children also pointed to lasting emotional and psychological trauma resulting from their failed trips north.
A Honduran teenager, identified in the UNICEF report as Eric, recounted how he and his mother attempted to reach the U.S. about nine years ago, hoping for better living conditions. Along the way, they were stopped at a police roadblock, where he was held at gunpoint. He and his mother were detained together in a jail for four months before they were finally deported back to Honduras.
They were penniless, said Eric, 18; they sold all of their belongings to help pay for their initial trip. Eric’s mother eventually left Honduras again to look for work, leaving the teen to look after his younger sister.
“You are a little boy, but you don’t have the mind of child. You have the mind of an adult because of all these events,” Eric recalled his mother telling him, before she left again.
Eric told UNICEF he’s had psychological problems from the stress of the situation, describing himself as “aloof.” “Those problems made me a lonely boy because I had to think like a grown-up,” he added.
UNICEF’s report said the detention or separation of migrant families by immigration forces are “deeply traumatizing experiences” that can affect a child’s development in the long run.
Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said “the relationship with a loving parent or primary caregiver is critical to a child’s sense of self and safety.” The younger the child, the more critical this is, she said.
More than 2,500 migrant children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as the Trump administration pushed its “zero-tolerance” policy this spring. The practice of separating children from their parents was subsequently halted by an executive order. Since then, hundreds of children remain separated from their parents, amid a legal battle between the U.S. government and the American Civil Liberties Union to reunify all those affected by the administration’s crackdown.
When a young girl named Sofi and her grandmother came legally to a U.S. immigration checkpoint, they tried to apply for asylum but were separated by U.S. officials. After 47 days, their story took a happier turn last week in California. Amna Nawaz joins William Brangham to share an update.
“Even with older children, separation from parents or primary caregivers is one of the most potent traumatic stressors that a child can experience, especially if this happens under frightening or sudden or chaotic or prolonged circumstances,” Kraft said.
These type of separations, regardless of where they occur along the children’s journey, can increase the child’s risk for developing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms or other traumatic reactions, she added.
What needs to be done?
Among other calls for action in its report, UNICEF said there needs to be investments from Mexico, the U.S. and other governments into the economies of these affected countries. That also includes investing in education and having systems in place so that migrant children are not compelled to uproot and journey north or move elsewhere within the region.
UNICEF also called for alternatives to the detention of migrant families by Mexican and U.S. officials and an end to the practice in both countries.