Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fleeing Unaccompanied Minors Failed By The System

Fleeing gang violence in his hometown near San Pedro Sulas in Honduras, 14-year-old Gredys Alexander Hernández tried to reach safety in the United States, only to be intercepted in Mexico and sent back. Two days later, just as he was about to re-attempt the journey, masked gangsters burst into his house and shot him dead.
Honduran police say Hernández was murdered because he had witnessed gangsters killing his sister’s boyfriend. The authorities in Honduras say he failed to tell staff at the migrant processing centre there that his life would be in danger if he was sent home.
Hernández’s story illustrates how mechanisms put in place to stop an unprecedented influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America to the southern US border – which peaked last summer – are failing scores of children fleeing violence in their native countries.

In response to the border crisis last year, the US set up an in-country refugee/parole programme for Central American Minors (CAM), as a way for children from the violence-hit “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to join parents already lawfully living in the US.
It was billed as a safe and legal alternative that would deter children from undertaking the perilous journey through Mexico to the US. But the US also leaned heavily on Mexico to beef up interceptions and deportations of migrants trying to reach the border.

Mexico now deports more Central Americans than the US, including nearly 10,000 unaccompanied minors between October 2014 and March 2015. Critics argue that the mechanisms for processing asylum claims in Mexico are woefully inadequate and that many children are not being adequately screened before being sent back to danger.

The result of Mexico’s crackdown has been that the numbers of Central American children reaching the US in 2015 is around half the figure that made it during the same period in 2014. In total last year, 68,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the border.

A 2014 report by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, showed that half of unaccompanied children arriving at the US border from the three Northern Triangle countries and Mexico should qualify for protection.
Meanwhile, by all accounts, the violence and societal breakdown causing children to flee have only got worse.
Since a truce between two major gangs – MS-13 and Barrio 18 – broke down last year, violence in all three countries has continued to soar. Much of it is attributed to turf wars between the two gangs, which originated in Los Angeles.

In El Salvador more people were killed in May (an average of 20 a day) than in any month since 1992. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with over 100 people killed in the first 10 days of the year; and violence in Guatemala was worse this January than last, also in large part due to rivalry between the two gangs, which have links to global organised crime networks.

While the violence has continued, not one child from the three eligible countries has yet to join his or her parents in the US as a result of the CAM programme, although more than 2,000 individuals have applied. The refugee organisations tasked with implementing the programme have reported a steady uptick in applications as news of its existence spreads, but only a handful have reached the interview stage and agencies say no children are expected to arrive in the United States before the end of the year.
The process is lengthy and laborious, involving DNA testing of parents and children, medical and security checks and many other administrative hoops. Furthermore, CAM is capped at only 4,000 applications this year.

IRIN contacted several of the organisations involved – all of them NGOs that receive state funding to implement refugee resettlement programmes – but none would facilitate interviews with parents trying to reunite with their children. Staff members said parents were afraid that a media interview could endanger their children or jeopardise the outcome of a yet-to-be-approved application.

“It's a political programme, not a humanitarian one,” commented Refugee International’s senior advisor on human rights Sarnata Reynolds, who visited El Salvador recently.

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