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.