Report: Mexico is mishandling Central America’s child refugee crisis

Ramon Rodriguez of El Salvador holds his feverish 18-month-old son Dylan at the Casa del Migrante shelter run by Catholic nuns in Reynosa, Mexico. File January 2016. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Mexican immigration authorities have been under scrutiny for failing to comply with the country’s own laws on handling unaccompanied child migrants, who have been fleeing other Central American countries in greater numbers and traveling through Mexico on the route to the U.S. border.

The situation has gained attention since the publication of a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) late last month, which revealed that although thousands of migrant children fleeing gang violence in Central America could qualify for refugee status in Mexico, only a tiny percentage manage to obtain that protection. HRW says nearly 36,000 Central American children were apprehended in Mexico last year a 270 percent increase from just two years prior but only 0.3 percent of these minors were offered protection.

According to the report, the Mexican government is to blame, for not properly screening unaccompanied children for refugee claims. Instead of treating them as asylum cases, the minors are routinely misinformed about their rights, held in detention centers and then returned to the countries from which they fled.

For those children who do apply for asylum, there is no legal assistance to help them navigate the process, according to a Washington Post report.

Mexico’s National Institute for Migration (INM) responded to criticism in a press release, reassuring that all unaccompanied children are informed of their rights and are offered protection, but they often reject it.

“All unaccompanied girls, boys, and adolescents are offered refuge in Mexico and the INM has documented that minors reject it because their sole purpose is to reach the United States or to be reunited with their closest relatives because in Mexico they would not have to opportunity to do so,” the INM said in the statement.

But the INM’s response has done little to stifle criticism that Mexico is taking advantage of a vulnerable population of children who are not acutely aware of their legal rights. The majority of these children are fleeing Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which have some of the world’s highest murder rates. According to HRW’s report, more than half of children detained in Mexico are traveling alone.

“On paper, Mexican law appears to provide every protection for children who have fled their home countries in fear of their lives, but the government is not giving adequate consideration to their claims,” Michael Bochneck, senior children’s rights lawyer at HRW, told the Guardian. “Both Mexico and the U.S. – which has pressured Mexico to interdict Central Americans – should work to provide appropriate care and a reasonable opportunity to apply for protection for children fleeing danger.”

An analysis by Insight Crime also supports the claim that the United States has pressured Mexican authorities into stemming the flow of migrants heading north. The U.S. is still considering how to spend a $750 million aid package for the Northern Triangle, Insight Crime explains, which is partly designed to stop people from leaving the region.

Considering that Mexico has seen a 275 percent increase in detentions of migrant children between 2013 and 2015, the country’s growing role in the mass migration of Central American minors is certain. The question, rather, is when and how children fleeing from countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will obtain refugee status without being sent back to face the violence they fled from in the first place.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com