As surge of young Central American migrants hits US border, a look at global child migration

An unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors are migrating from Central America and being apprehended along the US border with Mexico, sending US authorities into crisis mode.

With 47,017 children under the age of 18 taken into custody between October 2013 and May 31 of this year — nearly double the 24,493 in all of the last fiscal year, with the possibility of rising to 90,000 in the remaining four months of fiscal year 2014 — President Obama has called the influx an “urgent humanitarian situation.

The US Department of Justice on Friday announced a $2 million legal aid program to assist children who now have to navigate complex and unfamiliar immigration courts. The DOJ has also opened additional emergency shelters and facilities in California, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona to address the shortage of space in which to house the minors once they arrive in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where 71 percent of the apprehensions have taken place.

Officials have said that increases in violence and economic vulnerability in the children’s home countries could be the reason for the massive influx, or even rumors that the US will not deport children who make it to the border without parents. Republicans have blamed a 2012 policy that has provided two-year work permits as well as deportation relief to over 600,000 unauthorized immigrants who arrived in country as children.

Large waves of child migrants have also recently made headlines elsewhere in the world. Though a photograph of a Syrian child crossing the desert alone quickly went viral and was later found to be inaccurate, thousands of Syrian children have actually crossed borders without their parent or guardian, in hopes of reaching safer countries, according to United Nations agencies that spoke with Al Arabiya News.

“There about 8,000 of these children, who have crossed the Syrian borders into neighboring countries unaccompanied by their parents [since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011],” said Juliette Touma, a regional spokeswoman for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

A 2007 report by the Child Rights International Network studied the migration experiences of children who cross international borders without a parent or guardian, specifically looking at children arriving in South Africa from Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

The report found “sufficiently large numbers of children crossing borders unaccompanied to warrant major concern” and that the average age of these children was 14, though some were as young as seven years old. Many cited reasons of death of a parent or caregiver, poverty in their home country and lack of educational opportunity.

But experts and activists say that unaccompanied children are not only in danger when traveling alone. In fact, Lilana Keith, program officer for Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), said, children migrating with families also face human rights abuses.

“Just because they’re [minors] with a parent doesn’t mean they’re protected,” she said.

A draft memo from a top Border Patrol official — which “expresses alarm” over the Department of Homeland Security’s handling of the influx of child migrants in Texas and “calls for the administration to stop releasing illegal crossers” into the US and to “impose harsher ‘consequences’ on illegal crossers” — revealed that:

“Although the administration has discussed the surge almost exclusively in terms of an influx of children travelling alone, there are also reports that in fact unaccompanied minors represent only about one-third of the flow. Again today in a press conference call, senior administration officials claimed to have no figures available on the number of family units who have been apprehended.”

Italy has also had its hands full with a large wave of migrants this week. The Italian coast guard has rescued over 2,500 men, women and children — coming from Africa — from boats south of Sicily in under just 24 hours.

The Italian navy and coastguard ships have reportedly had to aid 17 different boats in one day, in the waters off the Libyan and Tunisian coasts.

The European country has also had difficulty handling the more than 62,0000 migrants they’ve already received this year—up from over 40,000 in the fall of 2013.

In Melilla, Spain, crowds of over a thousand African immigrants illegally living in Morocco rush the barbed-wire border fence regularly, most recently at the end of May, attempting to cross into Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla and reach Europe “in search of a better life.”

News of the children flooding the US Mexico border has come just two months after the Obama administration reached the two million mark in deportations—more than any US president in history.

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