Guatemala : A key part of the northern migration corridor
Due to its geographic location, children migrating north toward Mexico or the United States must pass through Guatemala. This includes children from the Northern Triangle countries as well as from countries in South America and even Asia. It’s estimated that 11.6 million migrants pass through Guatemala each year. These movements include children who are at risk of being placed in immigration detention.
In 2013, 104 children were detained in Guatemala because they didn’t have the proper documentation: 72 were between the ages of 14 and 17, while 32 were younger than 13 years old. Unfortunately, Guatemala doesn’t have a public policy or attention protocol for migrant children. Thus, the treatment received by each child who passes through Guatemala can vary greatly and no child is protected against immigration detention.
In most cases, children who travel with their parents are detained together in an immigration detention center called a “shelter” (“Albergue” de la Dirección General de Migración). Unaccompanied children are usually transferred to a different shelter run by the welfare department (Servicio de Bienestar Social), which is also closed. Children may spend days or even months in these places, depending on their case, with some children detained indefinitely.
This means that Guatemala is also following the harmful practices of child detention seen in Mexico and the United States, acting against international recommendations to never detain children on the basis of their migration status.
Invisible & Unprotected: Migrant Children in Guatemala
Some children fail to reach their intended destination and are forced to stay in Guatemala indefinitely. These children are at risk of being locked up because of their immigration status.
Additionally, some children – especially those from Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua – migrate to Guatemala with their families to work. Many are employed in agricultural activities, most without a work permit due to the high cost of the documents. As a result, children can be detained with their families or separated from their parents and loved ones, even if they have been living for several years in Guatemala.
The lack of statistics and information on the hundreds of child migrants in Guatemala means they are invisible, and so are their rights.
Indigenous Children are Particularly Vulnerable
The migration of the indigenous population has increased in recent years for various reasons such as extreme poverty, violence and lack of opportunity. These conditions, along with family reunification are those that have forced children and adolescents to leave Guatemala.
Indigenous child migrants are highly vulnerable. They are often victims of discrimination, racism and xenophobia, which often worsens in cases where children leave their homes. These children are objects of ridicule, insults and other abuse by both migrants and the authorities. Moreover, many do not speak Spanish or speak very little Spanish, much less English, and rarely have the support of an interpreter. This makes it extremely difficult for children arriving in other countries to tell their stories and ask for help or protection. If they are detained, they do not understand why, and spend time locked up only to be returned to the same situation that forced them to leave their home in the first place.
Children who are returned to Guatemala need support and special care
In 2014, 6,344 children and adolescents were deported to Guatemala, 6,150 from Mexico and 194 from the United States. In 2015, the number has increased, with 9,106 children and adolescents returned to Guatemala; 8,906 from Mexico and 110 from the United States, between January 1 and September 21.
For those returned to Guatemala, many arrive and are immediately in debt from their migrant journey, which have an average cost of Q40,000 ($ 5.340 USD), plus interest. However, average earning for these children are about Q500 ($ 67.00 USD) per month, due to the lack of opportunities and labor exploitation. This experience is compounded by the lack of resources available to their families and in the community, with limited access to training and educational resources. Providing adequate care and support for reception and reintegration continues to be a challenge; it is a regional responsibility to ensure that children are not being returned to unsafe situations.
Civil society organizations in the United States and Guatemala have begun an initiative to help young people have a safe return and a dignified life in Guatemala. The project provides support for reintegration, including family reunification, training, counseling and assistance in identifying and accessing education.
Support and protection for children should never include deprivation of liberty
Detained, Deceived, and Deported: Experiences of Rencently Deported Central American Families, a report by the American Immigration Council that includes irst-hand accounts from Central American women and their family members that reveal the dangerous and bleak circumstances of life these women and their children faced upon return to their home countries, as well as serious problems in the deportation process.
ACNUR (2014). Arrancados de Raíz: Causas que originan el desplazamiento transfronterizo de niños, niñas y adolescentes no acompañados y separados de Centroamérica y su necesidad de protección internacional.
Niños, niñas y adolescentes migrantes retornados: Un análisis de los contextos y las respuestas de los servicios y las políticas de protección en El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras y México. (RELAF, Save the Children, UNICEF, 2015).
A Year After Obama Declared a “Humanitarian Situation” at the Border, Child Migration Continues. Kate Swanson, Rebecca Torres, Amy Thompson, Sarah Blue, & Óscar Misael Hernández Hernández, NACLA, August 27, 2015