Marina Jimenez, Toronto Star, March 31, 2016
Eleven-year-old Omar’s grandparents feared the gangs would come for him, so they paid a smuggler to take him to Mexico. “Life is ugly where I live,” said Omar, who is from Honduras, a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
But in Mexico, immigration authorities detained him. He was alone, a skinny kid in well-worn khakis and a T-shirt, terrified at the prospect of having to spend months in a prison-like setting with no school and no outings. So, he agreed to be deported home. He did not make an asylum claim.
“Putting children in a position in which they think they have to choose between months in detention or being returned to danger violates common decency as well as Mexican and international law,” said Michael Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel with Human Rights Watch (HRW) and author of the 151-page report, “Closed Doors: Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children.”
Bochenek and his team spent nine months interviewing 61 children–including Omar–and 100 adults who had travelled to Mexico from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, collectively known as the Northern Triangle countries.
The report is the first comprehensive analysis about what happens in Mexico to unaccompanied children who flee there from the Northern Triangle. Many are escaping the clutches of gangs in their countries, who try to recruit, extort, kidnap or even kill them. Poverty convinces others to leave.
Last year, Mexico apprehended more than 35,704 children from the Northern Triangle, an increase of 55 per cent, compared to 2014, and 270 per cent more than in 2013. Only 56 were accepted as refugees.
Mexico has laws in place to protect refugees, and also laws that stipulate unaccompanied minors must be placed in shelters operated by the country’s child protection system.
In reality, however, children who may have claims for refugee recognition confront multiple obstacles from the moment they are taken into custody, said Bochenek.
Most are detained in overcrowded, prison-like settings. Often, they do not know they are entitled to make a claim for asylum, and feel added anxiety and fear about spending time in detention. They are not referred to lawyers.
One 17-year-old girl interviewed by Human Rights Watch said: “Not knowing what would happen to me made me so anxious I thought about killing myself.”
Another young Honduran, 17-year-old Edgar, who was threatened by gangs, made it north past Mexico’s border states to Oaxaca, before he was detained.
“I told the immigration official I couldn’t return. He said I could ask for asylum, but it would be six months before I’d hear back and I was already in detention,” said Edgar, in the HRW report. “I knew I couldn’t handle it (being locked up).”
The journey through Mexico can itself be dangerous; frequently, migrants are kidnapped, extorted or raped. That makes them victims of crime in Mexico, and eligible for a “humanitarian” visa to stay for 12 months, although in practice this rarely happens.
The HRW report, released Thursday, comes at a time when Mexico is apprehending an increasing number of Central Americans, in response to pressure from the U.S., which has provided funding to Mexico to beef up enforcement.
At the same time, U.S. apprehensions of unaccompanied children from Central America have decreased.
In northern Mexico, unaccompanied child refugees are treated better and routinely housed in shelters and not in detention centres, the report noted. “Those exceptions demonstrate that Mexico is capable of complying with its international obligations and the requirements of its own laws.”
HRW is calling on the U.S. to direct funding not just at enforcement efforts, but to support underage refugees themselves, and to improve Mexico’s asylum processing system.