5 Things You Need to Know About Unaccompanied Children

Center for American Progress

Detainees play as others sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas.
Detainees play as others sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas.

The number of children fleeing violence by themselves to the United States from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador has skyrocketed over the past few months. No less than 47,017 children have arrived so far in 2014—a 92 percent increase from 2013—and as many as 90,000 children are expected by year’s end. These children are escaping danger in their homelands and running for safety not only to the United States, but also to neighboring nations including Panama, Belize, and Costa Rica.

As attention on this issue shifts from the nation’s southern border to inside the Beltway, it’s important to keep the following five facts in mind.

1. Violence is causing these children to flee

Violence is the leading factor forcing unaccompanied children from Central America to the United States. Honduras has become the murder capital of the world and gang violence has increased dramatically—including in El Salvador and Guatemala—over the past few years. In fact, El Salvador and Guatemala rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in terms of the highest worldwide murder rates. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State describes the violence level in Honduras and El Salvador as “critically high.”

Interviewing more than 400 unaccompanied minors, researchers found that many of them had fled forcible ‘join or die’ gang recruitment or gang threats against themselves and their families. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, 58 percent of unaccompanied minors “raise potential international protection” claims. This means that they have a viable claim to refugee protections under international law.

One 17-year-old interviewed by the UNHCR fled El Salvador after gang members who had killed students at his school told him “if [he] returned to school, [he] wouldn’t make it home alive.”

1. Violence is causing these children to flee

Violence is the leading factor forcing unaccompanied children from Central America to the United States. Honduras has become the murder capital of the world and gang violence has increased dramatically—including in El Salvador and Guatemala—over the past few years. In fact, El Salvador and Guatemala rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in terms of the highest worldwide murder rates. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State describes the violence level in Honduras and El Salvador as “critically high.”

Interviewing more than 400 unaccompanied minors, researchers found that many of them had fled forcible ‘join or die’ gang recruitment or gang threats against themselves and their families. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, 58 percent of unaccompanied minors “raise potential international protection” claims. This means that they have a viable claim to refugee protections under international law.

One 17-year-old interviewed by the UNHCR fled El Salvador after gang members who had killed students at his school told him “if [he] returned to school, [he] wouldn’t make it home alive.”

2. Smugglers and traffickers prey on these children, who are increasingly younger and female

The demographics of the children entering the United States have changed dramatically. For much of the past decade, most of the children crossing the border were older males. But many of those arriving now are female and the average age is dropping: Children under age 10—and some much younger—are now making the dangerous journey from their homelands.

Even worse, smugglers and human traffickers are taking advantage of the crisis by enticing children who are looking for a way to escape the violence to flee by acting as transportation from the home country to the United States. These people are often related to—or working in concert with—the same groups perpetrating the violence within the children’s home countries. Girls are routinely raped on the journey and gang violence along the route is common.

While some of these children do have relatives in the United States, reuniting with family was the primary goal for less than one-third according to researcher Elizabeth Kennedy. Instead, violence forced them from their hometowns and home countries.

3. This is a regional crisis

The violence currently rocking Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala is not only causing a refugee crisis in the United States. Every country in the region has also been affected as children are running for their lives and seeking safety wherever they can find it. According to the UNHCR, asylum requests from Honduran, El Salvadoran, and Guatemalan nationals have increased 712 percent in the neighboring nations of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize since 2009.

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