When at least 70,000 children attempt to cross the U.S. border alone this year, the country does not merely face an immigration problem. It faces an international protection problem, a United Nations report released in March suggests.
Violence, insecurity and abuse are forcing most unaccompanied children in the Americas to make the perilous journey across international borders alone, according to the report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N.’s refugee agency. Given this increasing need for protection, the U.N. says all unaccompanied and separated children must be screened for international protection needs.
The principle of international protection - which aims to allow people fair chances to seek asylum from danger and avoid being returned to threatening conditions - states the international community must ensure basic rights.
Authors of “Children on the Run” interviewed 404 unaccompanied children who travelled from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and were in U.S. custody. Fifty-eight percent were forcibly displaced; nearly half fled because of increased regional violence and organized crime; 22 percent escaped abuse or violence in their homes, and 39 percent of Mexicans fled because of recruitment into and exploitation by the criminal industry of human smuggling.
Kevin, a 17-year-old from Honduras, relayed his grandmother’s advice to UNHCR researchers. “'If you don't join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.'"
Maritza, a 15-year-old from El Salvador, described how a gang member had his eye on her. “In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags,” she says, “My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there and I should go to the United States.”
U.S. officials call the dramatic rise of unaccompanied and separated children “the surge.” The total number of apprehensions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection has doubled from 4,059 in 2011 to 10,443 in 2012 and doubled again to 21,537 in 2013, the report says.
Although the U.S. records the largest number of new asylum applications - nearly 85 percent in 2012 - asylum requests have increased 432 percent in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize combined.
The U.N. says the United States and other governments in the Americas should work together to ensure children are screened and protected.
“All girls and boys must be safeguarded from any form of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation," said Shelly Pitterman, UNHCR regional representative in the United States, in a press release.
The study was funded with a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the United States.
To view the report, click here.