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The Invisible Children of Central America

Orphan boy in Mexico City. Picture: Heiða Vigdís Sigfúsdóttir
Orphan boy in Mexico City. Picture: Heiða Vigdís Sigfúsdóttir

Many may know of the problem with unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border from Mexico. Fewer know that the problem is even bigger in the southern boarders of Mexico where many children begin their journey north, towards the U.S. By their means of transport, often on the roofs of cargo trains, the children become vulnerable targets to organized criminal gangs who control the routes in Mexico. Few of the children reach their goal of building a life abroad: many get deported, others abducted, and those who remain and make it to the U.S. have a difficult life ahead of them.

According to UNICEF, the number of children crossing Guatemala’s border with Mexico has been increasing, from 5,596 in 2013 to 18,650 in 2015. The children mainly come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. What all of these countries have in common is that children under the age of 18 make up 40% of the population. More than half of those children live in poverty or even extreme poverty, especially in rural areas. The governments spend around one US dollar for one child a day which is not sufficient and leads to the lack of access to education, healthcare and clean water for them. Those who leave their homes are compelled by various reasons. For example, to reunite with their family abroad, to escape domestic violence or sexual exploitation, or simply to seek higher standards of living.

The problem with unaccompanied minors in Mexico is widespread and has resulted in pressure for the Mexican Government to change the situation. Picture: Heiða Vigdís Sigfúsdóttir
The problem with unaccompanied minors in Mexico is widespread and has resulted in pressure for the Mexican Government to change the situation. Picture: Heiða Vigdís Sigfúsdóttir

When in Mexico

Crossing the border to Mexico is just the children’s first challenge before becoming an invisible part of the Mexican population.

Humanitarian organizations, both national and international, have harshly criticised the Mexican government for not respecting immigrants’ human rights. Amnesty International refers to the immigrants as “the invisible victims”, where they are excluded from the Mexican society. Moreover, they are denied a legal status, which makes it impossible for them to seek justice, and thus become defenceless victims of violence and abuse.

The Mexican government has also felt pressure from the United States to increase surveillance of the migration flow through the country. In July 2014 they increased surveillance on the most common transit route – La Bestia – which refers to a number of cargo trains, whose railway spans a length of more than 3000 km across the country. In cooperation with the rail companies they also raised the speed limit which has been criticised for only making it more dangerous for the migrants.

Immigrants travel on top of La Bestia which takes them around one to two months.

“The Beast of the South, that’s what they call her. This wretched train of death, with the devil in the boiler, whistles, roars, twists and turns. […] The migrants go as cattle to the slaughterhouse.”

This is how the route is described in a hit Latin rhythm song which got famous around all Central America. What many did not know was that the song was actually a music propaganda. Produced by the US government, the song was a part of a multi-million dollar anti-immigration campaign.

Boys in the Metro in Mexico City. Picture: Heiða Vigdís Sigfúsdóttir
Boys in the Metro in Mexico City. Picture: Heiða Vigdís Sigfúsdóttir

The journey of the 17-year-old Bryan

Various stakeholders fight against immigration in Mexico and the United States. One such is UNICEF which works with the two governments in order to secure the human rights and safety of children in Central America. Among other cases, UNICEF has shed light on the 17-year-old Honduran boy, Bryan*  that went on a journey north, along with his 16-years-old cousin, heading to the United States.

“When we came to Mexico, we took the train which goes towards the United States. But I fell off and lost my leg… I think I fell asleep and, when I woke up, I was already falling.”

Bryan suffered severe injuries and was hospitalized for a month in Mexico. Six months later his journey came to an abrupt end, as he was deported back to Honduras. Driven by poverty and lack of opportunities, Bryan describes the situation he faces at home:

“I want to continue studying, but I cannot, because we do not have sufficient resources … Honduras has it all. There is nature, plenty of water … but what’s the point, if there is no…? [He pauses].”

Like many children, Bryan did not reach his destination. Most of the children who make it to Texas travel through Mexico on a bus or their journeys are arranged by organized smuggling networks. Smuggling can cost up to 10.000 US dollars, forcing the poorest immigrants to take the route of La Bestia.

The unaccompanied children remain hidden

The increase of the invisible children of Central America is worrying. Driven by despair and hope, children travel the route north towards the United States. Without knowing where their journey will lead them most of them never make it to their final destination. Those who make it the U.S. are not actively deported nor are they provided with a U.S visa or legal status (that is from other countries than Mexico). On their transit-route through Mexico many suffer violence, sexual abuse or injuries, like in the case of Bryan. Despite the work of humanitarian organisation the quiet crisis of the unaccompanied children still remains largely hidden from the public eye where many of the immigrants become an invisible part of the Mexican population.

Heiða Vigdís Sigfúsdóttir

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