Lone children among most vulnerable in human 'caravan'
TAPACHULA, Mexico – When street gang members torched his family home in Honduras, 16-year-old Eduardo* felt he had no option but to run for his life.
"When I saw our house burning I knew our number had been called, our luck had run out, it was time to flee," he says.
After living in constant fear of being killed or recruited by the gangs in his home town of Colon, he and a group of cousins joined a ‘caravan’ of thousands of children, women and men walking and hitch-hiking north through Central America on a quest for safety.
After crossing into neighbouring Guatemala, Eduardo and his cousins were at the head of the caravan of refugees and migrants as they attempted to cross the bridge over the Suchiate River to reach Mexico, when authorities closed the barrier and scuffles broke out.
"I felt helpless, unwanted by any country. I thought they would send us back."
"I felt helpless, unwanted by any country. I thought they (Mexican authorities) would send us back, and then my real nightmare would start," he recalls.
Eduardo was subsequently allowed to cross into Mexico, where he is among around 1,500 people who have lodged a claim for asylum.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has mobilized staff and resources to southern Mexico since Thursday, following the caravan’s arrival in the borderlands. As of Monday, 45 staff are in Tapachula, in Chiapas State, and others are en route.
Working in support of the Mexican authorities, UNHCR teams are providing staffing and technical help to ensure timely registration of asylum seekers like Eduardo. They are also setting up identification and referral processes for those with vulnerabilities and needs, and are increasing assistance and shelter capacity.
“Of concern to UNHCR at present is the developing humanitarian situation and the known kidnapping and security risks in areas the caravan may venture into,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told news media in Geneva earlier this week.
“Stabilizing the situation has become urgent."
“Stabilizing the situation has become urgent. It is essential that there are proper reception and other conditions for those seeking asylum as well as for others on the move,” he added.
The ‘caravan’, which was estimated at up to 7,000 people or more in size is the second organized march in the region this year, the first having taken place in April in Mexico. In Guatemala UNHCR is monitoring the border at Tecun Uman. Staff are assessing individual needs, and with partners, organizing humanitarian assistance to those most in need.
UNHCR is also identifying those who are particularly vulnerable, counseling them on their best options. This has led to a few unaccompanied and separated children choosing to claim asylum in Guatemala. The UN Refugee Agency is also monitoring returns and deportations from Guatemala, to ensure that they are voluntary and respect the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.
Most of those traveling in the caravan are in family groups, many with babies and toddlers. Their well-being is of particular concern to staff due to the extreme heat in the tropical lowlands of Chiapas, where temperatures are tipped to peak at 32°C this week, with high humidity.
In Honduras, meanwhile, UNHCR is monitoring the situation at the border with Guatemala through its partners and its San Pedro Sula office, as well as working with the authorities to ensure safe reception for those members of the caravan who are returning.
“UNHCR would like to remind countries along this route that this caravan is likely to include people in real danger,” Edwards stressed. “In any situation like this it is essential that people have the chance to request asylum and have their international protection needs properly assessed, before any decision on return or deportation is made.”
Eduardo is currently receiving food, medical attention and shelter in southern Mexico. As his claim for asylum is processed, his thoughts are with his sister, who opted to stay behind in Honduras, where she remains vulnerable to street gang violence.
"My sister and I are thick as thieves, what I miss the most is hearing her voice every day,” he says. “I worry that one day her luck will also run out.”
*Name changed for protection reasons.