The U.N. children’s agency warns the flow of migrant children from Central America to the United States continues at a high rate, despite the dangers of the journey and the risk of deportation.
In a report released Tuesday, UNICEF says in the first six months of this year 26,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the U.S. border. Nearly 30,000 more adults and young children traveled as families.
Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, three of the world’s poorest and most crime-ridden countries.
“These numbers are very, very high,” said Patrick Moser, who authored the report. “There is no indication that they will get any lower. The conditions in the countries are such that children will continue leaving.”
Families pay huge fees to smugglers, known as coyotes, to bring them and their children north to a better future.
Violent, harsh journeys
But for many, the journey is violent. Young girls, in particular, face the risk of rape. Migrant children must also cross harsh desert terrain and rivers to reach the U.S.
Many never reach the United States. This year, more than 16,000 migrant children were apprehended in Mexico. Hundreds of others will die during the dangerous and difficult journey, and many more will go missing at the hands of kidnappers, human traffickers and murderers.
Those who do make it to the United States face detention and deportation.
According to U.S. Immigration and Customs statistics in the UNICEF report, more than 75,000 nationals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were deported during 2015.
For children, UNICEF says that can “end up being a death sentence,” putting those who fled gangs and organized crime at risk of attack, rape and murder when they return home.
"We have to remember that whatever their migration status or nationality, children are, first and foremost, children,” Moser said. “They deserve protection, they need protection, and they are entitled to protection.”
He said that can mean safety from gang violence or drug cartels in their countries of origin or, on the migration journey, protecting them from kidnapping or human traffickers.
When unaccompanied child migrants are detained at the U.S. border, they are sent to government-operated shelters or are put in foster care homes. UNICEF says they are often in this situation for about one month, and are then are handed over to sponsors, who are often relatives.
No legal resources
But many children do not have automatic access to immigration lawyers, the report says. Some children receive free legal help from charitable groups, but others are left to fend for themselves in a foreign legal system.
“In the United States, a defendant is entitled to a court-appointed attorney in a criminal case. These immigration cases are civil cases,” Moser notes, so children are not automatically entitled to a free court-appointed attorney.
According to statistics quoted in the UNICEF report, about 40 percent of children without a lawyer are more likely to be deported than those who have representation. Those with lawyers had only a 3 percent deportation rate.
UNICEF said children should not be detained and should have full access to health care and other services, as well as be allowed to live with their families whenever possible.
For those who are sent home, UNICEF works with local governments and partner organizations to help children who have been traumatized by their journey and to get children who are ready back into school.