Mexico was once a country of transit for people seeking refuge in the USA but has now become a destination in itself for children and families fleeing gang violence in Northern Central America.

Francesca Fontanini, UNHCR Regional Public Information Officer in Mexico, talks about this ‘silent’ refugee crisis.

What is the situation facing children in Northern Central America – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras?

The age of recruitment by the gangs, or maras, is from age 10 or 11 and beyond. The children tell us they weren’t able to go to school because they feared being recruited by the maras or being forced to become informants for these gangs. Or they feared that their fathers or mothers would be killed.

How much power do the gangs have?

The mothers I speak to always talk about fearing their children will be forcibly recruited, because those gangs are everywhere. The gangs control the neighbourhoods where they live. They control entire areas and people are afraid to go to church, walk in the streets or even go to the market to buy food.

How do families survive this situation?

They say that just to stay alive they ended up staying at home inside the house, with the shutters closed – if you just look outside you could be accused of being an informant for another gang. And if you go out to work, the gangs demand extortion money. But there are many things we still don’t know, because people are still so afraid of talking – not even at home with their next-door neighbour, because they don’t know if the neighbour is collaborating with a criminal gang.

This family ran for their lives from gang violence in Northern Central America and now live in a former hotel turned safe house, where they receive assistance from UNHCR. They are on the waiting list for a permanent home.  © UNHCR/ J. J. Hay

UNHCR data indicates that 6 out of every 10 disappearances in Northern Central America are now children.  © UNHCR/ D. Volpe 

A family of Honduran refugees fleeing gang violence enter the town of Le Tecnica in Guatemala, a popular crossing point into Mexico. Refugees are walking vast distances to reach safety and they often arrive in Mexico barefoot, as their shoes have completely disintegrated during the journey.  © UNHCR/ T. Herrera

What can be done to help families and children arriving in Mexico?

In Mexico, UNHCR provides psychological and recreational activities for children to help them recover, and with the help of local authorities we support them to go to school so they avoid losing months and months of education.

In the case of unaccompanied children, UNHCR is working with a special unit in the region to provide them with tailored support and ensure they have a safe place to stay, either in the capital city or in border areas.

What happens to families while they are waiting for their refugee status to be confirmed?

The Mexican Government has received so many asylum applications that it now takes at least six months for each application to be processed. During this time people are not entitled to work, so UNHCR has set up a skills training centre to equip adults to find work as soon as they are approved. We also give refugees cash assistance to help them with rent and to buy basic items – because they cannot work to earn money, without this assistance many of them could be forced to return home.

What more needs to be done to help them?

Aside from UNHCR, there are not many international organisations working in this region. Most of the other assistance refugees receive comes from local priests and faith-based organisations that work with generous local communities to provide shelter, food and other essentials.

We need to be able to provide more facilities in shelters – more beds in particular – and more assistance to people living outside shelters.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the simplest things we can do is supply these refugees with more shoes. They make their long journeys to safety on foot and they’re arriving barefoot because they’ve worn out their shoes on the way.

Children and families on the run from horrific violence in Northern Central America desperately need a safe haven. You can help them.

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