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US border crisis overwhelms social services – in Central America

Paul ImisonThe Christian Science Monitor

On a rainy afternoon in Guatemala City, a handful of boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 16 are among those escorted off an official flight from the US. The older kids stare intently at the floor as they notice the waiting TV cameras. A 4-year-old girl tightly grasps her older sibling's arm. Each child has just been deported from the United States after entering the country illegally.

The deportees are ushered into a waiting area where they are greeted by a representative from the office of Guatemala’s attorney general. While some kids have relatives waiting at the airport to take them home, others are put into state care. According to Guatemala’s Ministry of Social Welfare, 800 child deportees are currently in government shelters, yet to be reunited with family.

Fleeing gang violence and poverty, the kids that deplane in Guatemala City are among the tens of thousands of Central American children detained by US authorities in recent months. It's an exodus that the region’s leaders have called a humanitarian crisis. According to the Guatemalan department of migration, 2,030 minors have been deported from the US and Mexico in the first six months of this year, compared to 2,845 minors overall in 2013.  

While politicians and pundits in the US debate the crisis on their southern border, countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are now dealing with an influx of their own citizens, as they struggle to reintegrate those whose often desperate situations caused them to leave in the first place. 

“The majority [of minors] are eventually reunited with a blood relative,” says Wendy Ramirez, director of the non-governmental Guatemalan Child Return and Reintegration Project, which assists returnees with practical and legal support.

“But what’s concerning is the lack of follow-up by authorities,” Ms. Ramirez says. “In many cases, [deported migrant children] are returning to isolated areas of the country where public services are sparse, and they just disappear from the system.” 

Unaddressed trauma?

Assistance in returning to school or finding work and training is complicated by the time spent away from home. However, an additional and oft-neglected issue is the physical and psychological abuse that children may have suffered on their journey north, Ramirez says.

For migrants traveling through Mexico, threats such as rape, extortion, and human trafficking are commonplace, often from the very "coyotes" – or human smugglers – paid to accompany them.

“Some of these kids may have just been through the most traumatic experience of their lives, and need serious counseling upon their return,” says Ramirez. “It’s something that Guatemalan authorities have only begun to scratch the surface of.”

Gang violence, poverty, and lack of opportunities are believed to be the main factors in the outflow of young people from Central America. Yet Cesar Aroche, executive director of the non-governmental Association to Help Children, Teenagers, and Young People in Guatemala City, points out that such issues have not disappeared upon the youngsters return.  

“It is wonderful to see examples where they are able to get back into school, find jobs, and improve their lives,” says Mr. Aroche, whose organization offers vocational training to youth at risk of gang recruitment, including deportees. “But sadly, these cases are few and far between. Statistics show that the vast majority of deportees will try to leave the country again in the future.”

The leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will visit the White House this Friday to discuss the issue of child migration with US President Barack Obama.