Childhood and Migration in Central and North America: Causes, Policies, Practices and Challenges

Center for Gender and Refugee Studies - UC Hastings
Publication Year:
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Migration affects millions of children and adolescents worldwide. Over the past decade, international bodies and agencies, governments, and civil society groups have increasingly engaged in dialogue on children and adolescents affected by migration—either their own or that of their parents. These entities have noted the importance and complexity of the phenomenon, as well as the range of problems these children and adolescents confront. They conclude that there is an urgent need to understand this phenomenon—in particular in those regions or corridors with the highest rates of child migration. One such region is the Central America–Mexico–United States migration corridor that has seen a nearly tenfold growth in child migration in recent years.

With the support of a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supplemented by the Ford Foundation, the current book analyzes the conditions for children and adolescents in Central and North America who are affected by migration throughout every stage of the process, including in their countries of origin, during transit, in destination countries, and following repatriation. It concludes by proposing short-, medium-, and long-term regional, bilateral, national, and local solutions grounded in human rights—including the right to human development, humanitarian principles, and international refugee law.

Human Rights, Children, and Migration results from a two-year, multi-partner, multi-national and regional investigation into the treatment of Honduran, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, and United States citizen and permanent resident children affected by migration. The book illuminates the overall gaps in protection and in guaranteeing rights for children and adolescents affected by migration. It examines the root causes of children and family migration in the region and its recent spike, and explores whether conditions and policies in children’s countries of origin, transit countries, and destination countries in the region protect their best interests and ensure their rights. It also assesses whether host or destination countries effectively integrate children and adolescents affected by migration, and whether existing programs ensure—on a case-by-case basis—safe and sustainable reintegration of repatriated children and adolescents. Interviews with children and adolescents, parents, and key social and political actors in the five countries studied, combined with the experience of experts working with migrant children and adolescents on a range of issues, form the basis of the book’s findings and recommendations.

This study was directed by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (CGRS) and the Migration and Asylum Program, Center for Justice and Human Rights at the National University of Lanús, Argentina (CDHUNLa) in partnership with Casa Alianza (Honduras), la Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (El Salvador); Pastoral de la Movilidad Humana and Asociación Pop No’j (Guatemala); Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova and the Programa de Defensa e Incidencia Binacional—including Casas YMCA de Menores Migrantes and Coalición Pro-Defensa del Migrante, A.C. (Mexico); Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (USA).


General findings

Children and adolescents affected by migration in Central and North America represent an urgent human rights, human development, refugee, and humanitarian challenge. The crux of the problem lies in the sending countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico where childhood has become synonymous with witnessing or suffering violence; experiencing human rights violations and discrimination on various grounds; suffering from social exclusion; and being deprived of education, employment opportunities, medical services, and even food. These conditions force children and/or their parents to migrate. The challenges continue during transit, especially in Mexico—with governmental actors and criminal syndicates preying on children and families by raping, kidnapping, extorting, or beating them, and with the governmental institutions enforcing migration control policies that are designed to punish and deter migration rather than to protect children and respect their human rights.

The problem endures in the destination countries of Mexico and the United States, where policies focused on migration enforcement take priority over children’s best interests and rights, resulting all too often in children and adolescents being repatriated to the very conditions they fled. It also persists in Mexico and the United States for migrant children and children in mixed status families who live in the shadows and on the margins of society, fearing their own or their family members’ deportation. Rather than being able to pursue their right to develop, learn, and grow, these children lack access to education, health care and other vital services, and they often land in exploitative labor conditions. Children’s rights to family and development are violated when undocumented parents cannot obtain residency status based on having children in regular migration status; are not entitled to work or to other basic rights; and can be deported without consideration of a child’s best interests. Finally, the violation of rights comes full circle in children’s countries of origin following their return, because the key root causes that forced them to migrate from Central America and Mexico—violence, social exclusion, poverty, and separation from family—remain unchanged.

This complex and multi-faceted human dilemma requires urgent attention and a fundamental paradigm shift. It will only be solved when conditions in children’s countries of origin do not force them or their parents to migrate, when increased options exist for children and families to migrate through regular channels, and when policies at the regional, national, and local levels adhere to rights-based principles with the best interests of the child as a core standard and guaranteed access to international protection. Truly resolving this human dilemma may take years, but efforts must begin now.


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