Urgent help needed for Central American children on the run
MEXICO CITY, Mexico - In the gritty neighbourhood in Guatemala City where the Rodriguez* family live, to be young is to be a target.
First it was 19-year-old Miguel, gunned down while returning from his night shift at a paper factory. Next came 18-year-old Gustavo, a promising footballer murdered by the same gang.
And finally, 13-year-old Luis was thrown from a bus into traffic by gangsters. When threats came to their youngest son, Andres, they knew their only choice was to run, taking nothing but the clothes on their backs.
As murderous street gangs continue to terrorize communities across the North of Central America, the chances of growing up safe are fast vanishing. You are lucky to make it out alive from many parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“My grandmother wanted me to leave. She told me ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you."
Fourteen-year-old Maria knows this only too well. A devotee of art and anime, kids at her school in El Salvador picked on her – but it went beyond simple teasing. While still just a sixth-grader, gang members started to harass her.
“Any excuse was good enough for them to torment a girl at school,” says Maria. “That place wasn’t safe.”
Known as pandilleros, the gang members routinely force girls and boys into their ranks, the girls as their sex objects and the boys as foot soldiers.
Maria’s parents pulled her out of classes. They knew what the gangs were capable of. In 2008 during the nascent stages of the gang violence, Maria’s sister went missing at the hands of a local gang and was never seen again. Eventually Maria had no choice but to run.
That was the same fate as 17-year-old Kevin, who left Honduras on his own after a gang member told him he had to join them.
“My grandmother wanted me to leave,” he says. “She told me ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do join, the rival gang will shoot you or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’”
The number of unaccompanied and separated children like Maria and Kevin driven to run for their lives from the violence suffocating the North of Central America has doubled every year since 2011, in what has become a silent crisis that can no longer be ignored.
To meet their needs, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is today launching the Children on the Run campaign, calling on donors and the public to join them in raising US$18 million to make sure everyone fleeing the mayhem engulfing the region has a place of refuge.
“An ever-greater number of children are fleeing extortion, forced recruitment, exploitation and sexual violence across the region,” said Renata Dubini, UNHCR’s Director for the Americas. "More funds are urgently needed to provide them and their families with a place of safety."
"An ever-greater number of children are fleeing extortion, forced recruitment, exploitation and sexual violence."
The pace at which men, women and children are seeking safety elsewhere is accelerating. UNHCR estimates that 182,400 refugees fled the northern region of Central America in 2016, a tenfold increase over five years.
And among them are children fleeing alone. In Mexico alone, more than 16,000 unaccompanied children were detained by authorities in 2016. More than half – 58 per cent - of these unaccompanied children reached Mexico’s border with the United States, in need of international protection.
This massive influx of Central American refugees in recent years is overwhelming authorities in countries of asylum, especially in Mexico. Asylum requests there have doubled every year since 2011 and they increased 152 per cent last year, although claims are also soaring in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
“It’s easy to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis, but it costs us to recognize what’s happening here,” Mexican actor Diego Luna told an event marking the launch of the campaign. “Today Mexico … is no longer just a place of transit, it’s become the place that many people want to reach.”
UNHCR has been ramping up its efforts across North and Central America to receive these refugees, offering cash assistance, operating shelters, and setting up legal and psychological services.
But with the crisis shows no sign of letting up, UNHCR cannot support the thousands of children and families desperate for a safe haven without your help.
*Refugee names have been changed for protection reasons