Children, without their parents or legal guardians, are crossing the Mexico border to the US in unprecedented numbers.

UN refugee agency calls on the Americas to keep unaccompanied and separated children safe from violence

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is concerned by increasing numbers of children in the Americas forced from their homes and families, propelled by violence, insecurity, and abuse in their communities and at home.

In a report released today, Children on the Run, UNHCR analyzes the humanitarian impact 
this insecurity has had on children, forcing them across international borders to seek safety 
on their own. The agency calls on Governments to take action to keep children safe from 
human rights abuses, violence and crime, and to ensure their access to asylum and other 
forms of international protection. 

“With violence and insecurity permeating the Americas region, we found a strong link 
between this unabated situation, new displacement patterns and the children’s reasons for 
leaving their homes and families to flee northward. They escaped armed actors, generalized 
and targeted violence in their communities and abuse in their homes,” said Shelly 
Pitterman, UNHCR regional representative in the United States. 

The report, based on a 2013 study funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur 
Foundation, unveils the humanitarian impact of the situation through UNHCR’s interviews 
with over 400 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and 
Mexico held in U.S. federal custody. 

The report shows that the large majority of these children believed they would remain 
unsafe in their home countries and as a result, should generally be screened for international 
protection needs by authorities along the way. 
A 17-year-old boy who fled Honduras stated, “My grandmother is the one who told me to 
leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’” 
A 14-year-old girl from El Salvador stated, “There are problems in my country. The biggest 
problem is the gangs. They go into the school and take girls out and kill them…. I used to 
see reports on the TV every day about girls being buried in their uniforms with their 
backpacks and notebooks. I had to go very far to go to school, and I had to walk by 
myself. There was nowhere else I could go where it would be safer. I lived in a village, 
and it was even worse in cities.” 

The number of children making the perilous journey alone and unaccompanied has doubled 
each year since 2010. The U.S. Government estimated, and is on track to reach, 60,000 
children arriving to U.S. soil seeking safe haven this year. 
Although the U.S. receives the majority of new asylum claims by both children and adults 
from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, it is not alone. Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, 
Costa Rica and Belize, combined, have also documented a 432% increase in the number of 
asylum applications from citizens of these three countries since 2009. 
Globally, the protection of children is a core priority for UNHCR. The international 
community has long recognized both the right of children to seek asylum and their inherent 
vulnerability. Children also face specific forms of persecution that may give rise to a claim 
for refugee status. 
“The United States, other Governments in the Americas, and UNHCR can work together to 
ensure these children are carefully screened and provided the protection they so desperately 
need and deserve. All girls and boys must be safeguarded from any form of violence, abuse, 
neglect and exploitation,” Pitterman said. 

The report will be the subject of a panel discussion later today at the Migration Policy 
Institute in Washington, D.C., with introductory remarks by UN High Commissioner for 
Refugees Antόnio Guterres. The report is released in the context of the 30th Anniversary 
of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, “Cartagena +30”. This represents an 
opportunity for Governments and UNHCR to reflect on the protection challenges facing the 
hemisphere, the gaps that might exist in the current international protection regime, and 
how to address them in a pragmatic and innovative way. 

Download the full report Children on the Run, including UNHCR’s recommendations to 
the Governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the United States: 

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the fundamental international framework for 
protecting children, along with international and regional human rights instruments. When 
States cannot protect their citizens, and they seek safety in another country, the 1951 
Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol outline the right to asylum and protection against forced return.

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