Child Refugees Flee Central America for U.S. in Dramatic Numbers

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More than 10,000 children from Central America have sought refuge in the United States in recent months after fleeing violence in their home countries — almost twice as many as last year.

The number of unaccompanied immigrant children has surged dramatically since October 2011, according to a report by the Women's Refugee Commission. By June, the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Refugee Resettlement had 10,004 children in its care.

Violence is the primary reason children have fled from Central America. They largely come from El Salvador (27 percent), Guatemala (35 percent) and Honduras (25 percent). The number of children from Mexico increased only slightly, according to the report.

"Children described terrible, harrowing journeys through their home countries and Mexico in order to reach the U.S. border," said Jessica Jones, researcher at Women's Refugee Commission and author of the report. "Yet the overwhelming majority of the children interviewed said they would risk the uncertain dangers of the trip north again to escape the certain dangers they face at home."

Among the things they were fleeing were gangs and drug cartels, but also poverty.

This is part of why the number of children from Guatemala dramatically jumped. Guatemalans have suffered food shortages nationwide, though indigenous populations and unskilled agricultural laborers have been affected the most, the report said.

The report summarized some of their journeys:

"Children who traveled with guides or on bus routes described a constant threat of being killed, kidnapped and abused by criminal organizations. Those who were captured only secured their release by paying for their freedom. While not all children described mistreatment by guides, many of those who did revealed being locked in rat-infested warehouses sometimes for days on end. Some reported physical abuse by the guides. One described being beaten with a 2 x 4 wooden beam. Another child told of how women and girls were kept in a separate room and could be heard screaming while being raped. Children further described the guides' failure to provide consistent access to food and water, especially in the desert."

"Once children got to the desert bordering the U.S., many were abandoned by guides and left without food or water. Some wandered for days until Border Patrol found them. Others describe making it to the Rio Grande River and watching others drown as they struggled against the current."

Even so, children prefer the risks in traveling north than staying home.

The report used numbers from the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)—the agency tasked with caring for these children—and from U.S. immigration agents.

The U.S. government is responsible for protecting children who are apprehended alone or without caregivers. Until parents, legal guardians or other appropriate caregivers are located, these children remain in the custody of ORR while their legal case is pending, said the report.

The government was unprepared for the influx of children. The Women's Refugee Commission has also documented poor treatment – even abuse – while in U.S. government custody.

"These facilities are not designed for long-term detention or to hold children," said Michelle Brané, Director of Detention and Asylum Program at Women's Refugee Commission. "The lights stay on 24 hours a day, and there are no showers or recreation spaces. During the influx, they were sometimes so overcrowded that children had to take turns just to lie down on the concrete floor. In some facilities, they did not even have blankets."

Brané criticized U.S. policy for its "shortcomings" in not recognizing the demographics of the populations arriving and seeking protection.

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