El Salvador Migration Crisis: “What I Would Tell a Coyote”

Lampedusa

Lucia Isabel Rodiguez, Save the Children El Salvador

August 19, 2015

 

What would I tell a ‘coyote?’ I would tell them to remember that they are dealing with human beings, not with merchandise.”

It’s crushing to meet children that are mistreated and neglected by the same people in their families who are responsible for caring and protecting them.

One of the cases that has affected me the most is meeting a twelve-year-old girl, let’s call her “Miriam”. By the age of 12 Miriam* had already attempted two dangerous migration trips. She was returned each time, back to El Salvador. She is the eldest of three girls all living with their mother. It was clear to me that this family was not equipped to provide a safe environment for the girls, and Miriam* showed signs of having suffered abuse. I fear that the mother will try to make this dangerous journey again with her daughters, therefore putting them at extreme risk.

Some children arriving at the centre for returned children here in El Salvador do not want to call their families and have nowhere to go. They feel utterly alone.

I have spent the last six months working at this centre for children who have been repatriated. It’s where hundreds of children return every week from their failed attempts to migrate to the US. They have travelled hundreds of miles by bus, train, truck and when I see them they are hungry and exhausted. We listen to their stories and try to give them as much psycho social support as we can during their short stay at the centre. These children know that their family spent a fortune, many times selling everything they had, to pay the “coyote” to take them to the U.S. When they are detained and deported back to El Salvador, many feel that they have failed and are back at “square one.” On top of feeling hopeless and ashamed, many children have suffered abuse by smugglers along the way and have been treated without respect by authorities at both the U.S. and Mexican borders.

In 2014, 68,000 unaccompanied children made it across the Mexican border into the US and more than 18,000 children were detained and then repatriated to their countries of origin. Most of the returning unaccompanied children we meet are boys between 15 and 17 years old, traveling alone, but we have also met young mothers with children of various ages, as well as unaccompanied children as young as 12. We received a mother with her 3-year-old son; he could hardly speak. From what we could understand, both mother and son had experienced horrific events along the way, including sexual abuse. The boy was traumatized.

Another mother with her two girls had sold everything they owned to pay the coyote – even their house. They returned to El Salvador with nothing.

I am very worried about these children and feel it is critical and urgent that we do more to help them recover from these experiences and to help them reintegrate into their communities to continue their lives.

There are two main reasons why children want to migrate to the US. The most common reason is due to the violence that exists in El Salvador. Violence creates insecurity, and children I meet tell me again and again about their fear, because in El Salvador they live in constant fear of being killed or hurt, especially by gangs. It’s lamentable that our authorities haven’t focused on stemming gang violence and its growth, and stopping the drug trade. Children need a break from this insecurity, a chance to know what it’s like to just be a child without the fear of violence hovering around them. Children here don’t know what it is like to live in peace.

When I meet these children who have tried unsuccessfully to migrate and who have gone through traumatic experiences along the way, well, I feel helpless. But I understand what they say and do not say, and why they want to leave. I feel helpless because I recognize that as a society we are not providing them with the environment they need and we can’t guarantee their safety. Children and adolescents are harassed and threatened by violent gangs and there are many cases where families have practically imprisoned their children in their own homes to protect them. They tell me that they can’t leave their homes because it’s dangerous and their lives are at risk.

The other reason is the low quality of education that exists for us in El Salvador. This leads to a lack of opportunity and motivates children to look for opportunities to leave their own country in hope for of a better life elsewhere.

I wish Save the Children could do more – I think we should work more to help returning children by following up on cases, to visit children and visit them in their homes. Such distressful experiences have a huge potential to damage children and adolescents in the long term and to damage their self esteem. It’s important to be able to speak to them and their parents about the experiences they have been through so they can move forward in a positive way. Many children who are returned are stigmatised and we need to protect them from harm. We need to work with families, as some of them put in place and develop a coping mechanism that makes things worse.

Working with families is key: For example, we need to work with parents and convince them of the need to provide children with safe and functional places where children they can learn and grow. Parents might think that there isn’t a problem if a child stays at home with them all day but children in such cases can lose out on interpersonal awareness, and the confidence that comes with playing with other children, with learning new ideas, etc.

I often feel very proud of the work that we do and that’s because of Save the Children’s vision. It’s not about temporary solutions or short-term interventions, but rather an integrated, holistic approach that begins at the start of a child’s life and continues through childhood and adolescence. I am proud of the work we do around primary education, and with mothers to make sure that children have the best possible upbringing. Save the Children is about putting in place a system that has long-term benefits for children.

Stories of Courage From Lampedusa

Lampedusa

Giovanna Di Benedetto, Save the Children Italy

Media Officer

Sicily, Italy

August 19, 2015

 

I am a media officer for Save the Children Italy working in Sicily, a region that includes the island of Lampedusa. My role is to give a voice to child migrants who come to our shores. My amazing adventure with Save the Children began last July, at about the same time that there was a surge in the number of migrants making the trip by boat to Sicily. On some days there were two or three landings a day and my team was present for all of these, on hand to give assistance and support.

Over 170,000 migrants came to Italy by sea in 2014, 26,000 of them being underage. When you hear that figure, it’s easy to forget the human dimension to this crisis. But behind the number is a story of bravery and resilience and my job is to help the public understand what drives these children to risk their lives to come alone, to our shores. All children have their own personal slice of suffering but they also have hope and so much ambition for a better future.

I remember a story about two Palestinian brothers who had been living in a refugee camp in Syria. They were 19 and 9 years old. They travelled from Turkey to Sicily with their grandfather. The brothers held each other’s hands very tightly -they were so afraid of being separated. In Syria they had lived through continuous shelling and when the younger brother had been badly hurt he hadn’t been able to see a doctor for 20 days. It was so moving to see how much these brothers loved each other and how close they were. They and their grandfather had an ambition to go to Northern Europe.

One thing that is always shocking to hear is what children have endured in Libya. Libya is a transit point for migrants coming to Italy and almost everyone who has been held here has a horrific story to tell. I met a Gambian boy who was 16 years old. He showed me the scars on his arm. He told me that the scars were all over his body. The wounds were caused by beatings and cigarette burns he had received by Libyan traffickers.

It’s our goal to give children back their childhood, for them to be able to play, be serene, to live with their families and to give them a chance to have a future. Children have an incredible energy. Sometimes I see children who have been on a boat for hours and hours get off the boat and immediately start playing and running around. These children have a right to have a childhood like everyone else. And up to now they have missed out on this.

I love to tell the story of the little Syrian girl called Hayat. She landed in Sicily, last August and is a survivor in every sense of the word! Her parents and her brother who was 10, all died during the boat trip to Sicily. A Syrian man, who was on the same shipwrecked boat, saved Hayat. He found her in the water, hanging on to a piece of debris. She was one year and eight months old. We saw them disembark, the man was a size of a giant and he held little Hayat so protectively. This man, who turned out to be a Syrian doctor had saved this little girl’s life. He absolutely adored her and she him. He wanted to adopt her but this wasn’t possible.

Hayat was placed into the care of child welfare services and Save the Children representatives were able to contact her grandfather and aunt who were living in Sudan. After a lengthy process we were able to bring over the grandfather and uncle from Sudan and reunify them with Hayat. This was a very happy moment for us, that she was able to return home to her own family. She was 1 year 8 months when she arrived and she celebrated her 2nd birthday with us, her foster family and her aunt and grandfather!

We’ve also witnessed mothers who have given birth on the rescue ships of the Italian Coast Guard, almost immediately after they had been helped off the rubber dinghy they had attempted the trip on. There was a Nigerian woman who gave birth on Christmas day, with the assistance of the Italian Red Cross. She was one of 900 migrants who arrived that day.

I’ve learned that people leave their homes because they feel that they have no other alternative. Perhaps they are fleeing the conflicts in Syria or Iraq, from violence in Nigeria or from extreme poverty. Children tell us that their families are too poor to care for them, they have no future prospects, and some do not have the chance to go to school. Now in Italy they will have the chance to get an education. These children want to be doctors or lawyers so they can defend the rights of the most vulnerable. Many also want to become football players- they know the names of all Italian and European football players! One young migrant we assisted was a promising football player in his country and he came here to pursue his dream.

I remember when we received a landing of about 800 people, migrants who came ashore on a cargo boat. An old woman had disembarked, and all of her life was in a little plastic bag. She sat on the dock and started crying inconsolably. A few days later I saw her in the first reception centre. She had been given clothes, food and a place to sleep. She gave me a hug and started to caress my hair. Little gestures like this are small tokens of humanity that keep me going.

These stories teach us so much and they give the Save the Children team and me the motivation to make a difference. These people are so courageous. The cases we see are emotionally very difficult but what keeps us going is the sense of humanity, the strength of human spirit. This might seem like rhetoric but it isn’t – I witness it every day.