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Opening remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Launch of UNHCR's report "Children on the Run"

Statements by High Commissioner, 12 March 2014

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about unaccompanied and separated children on the move in the Americas. I would like to express my particular appreciation to the U.S. Government, the MacArthur Foundation, the Migration Policy Institute, and UNDP for organizing this event.

The protection of children is a core priority for UNHCR globally, as they are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable especially those who are unaccompanied or have been separated from their families. And although children moving across borders alone is a growing global phenomenon, the problem itself is not new. UNHCR has been providing protection to unaccompanied and separated children since the beginning, including during the Vietnamese boat people crisis, the Sudanese civil war and most recently in the countries neighboring Syria.

Here in the Americas, we have seen a troubling new trend in recent years. As crime and violence have increased dramatically in Mexico and Central America, more and more people are seeking asylum in the region and in the United States in particular. It is especially alarming that the number of children making this dangerous journey alone has doubled each year since 2010. Some 60,000 minors are expected to seek safety on U.S. soil this year, mainly originating from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

So you have to ask yourself: who are these children, and why are they fleeing? These questions were at the origin of the report we are launching today, "Children on the Run". It is based on UNHCR's work, together with U.S. authorities, to improve the protection screening of unaccompanied and separated children at the southern border, and on individual interviews with over 400 of them.

The primary objective of this study was to better understand these children's reasons for leaving their home countries and to assess the extent to which they may have international protection needs. Although not the focus of today's report, our research also documented the hardship and abuses that these children endured while trying to reach the US . The stories they told us make clear what was at risk if they stayed home and why they made the journey alone, illustrating the humanitarian impact of the violence in the region on these children, and the decisions it forced them to make.

We found that the large majority of these children may very well have international protection concerns fleeing armed actors, persecution, violence in their communities and abuse in their homes. Most of them had one thing in common their conviction that their States were unable to protect them.

Our central conclusion from the study is therefore that unaccompanied and separated children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico should generally be screened for international protection needs. We must uphold the human rights of the child as laid out in the relevant international and regional instruments as well as the right to seek asylum and protection under the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

In a few weeks' time, UNHCR with the support of the European Commission will release a similar report based on interviews with 270 unaccompanied children from Central America reaching Mexico's southern border. Similar to the situation UNHCR found in the United States, these interviews indicate that the dramatically high levels of violence affecting Central America also contribute to more and more unaccompanied children seeking safety in Mexico some 5,500 in 2013 alone.

UNHCR is also conducting research to analyse displacement trends in Central America and to better understand the impact of violence on all persons, regardless of age. This research will feed into a dialogue among States that we will convene together with the Central American Integration System (or SICA in Spanish). I hope these efforts will help to make more visible the impact of insecurity in the region on women and children in particular.

These different initiatives all reveal a regional dimension to the difficulties faced by Central American children, one that calls for regional dialogue and regional solutions. UNHCR would like to use this year's commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration to initiate a reflection with Governments on the protection challenges facing the region, the gaps that might exist, and ways to address them in a pragmatic and innovative way. The "Cartagena+30" process, culminating with a Ministerial Meeting in Brazil in December, aims at States adopting a Declaration and Plan of Action that would drive the region's protection and solutions strategy for the next decade.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

With the report we are launching here today, we want to contextualize the state of citizen security in the region and understand the humanitarian impact it has had on people displaced across international borders, especially unaccompanied children. We also need to look at the root causes of these movements; understand more about the profiles of children on the move, the abuses they flee from and what they suffer en route.

UNHCR cannot do this alone, and we will expand our partnerships to work together on responses and solutions to benefit these children, including identification, access to asylum and other protection solutions, tracing and best interest determinations. I hope that we will be able to work closely with the concerned States and civil society to ensure these children are carefully screened and provided the protection they so desperately need and deserve. All girls and boys must be safeguarded from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Thank you very much.

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