In Northern Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – children are fleeing horrific gang violence. Threats from criminal syndicates, known as maras, can start as early as age five or six.

To escape the terror, children are leaving everything behind and seeking safety in neighbouring countries, with most heading north to Mexico. But those who don’t make it across the border remain vulnerable and alone within their own country.

In the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, UNHCR Child Protection Officer Luca Guanziroli helps children and youth who are displaced within Honduras and those who are deported from Mexico or the US.

What made you want to become a humanitarian worker?

I grew up in Switzerland and in my neighbourhood, almost all the residents were migrants or refugees. This made me interested in the causes of displacement. When I started to think about humanitarian work, the first thought was “I would like to go and work in the countries of my friends”.

After working with UNHCR in Greece, I jumped at the possibility to come here to Honduras. I was very eager, but I didn't really know what to expect.

When I arrived, a colleague told me, “Deported children, that’s one thing, but now we are also focused on other kinds of displacement.” Around 174,000 displaced people were identified in 20 urban cities of Honduras – 43% of those were children. We have to do something about it.

UNHCR staff member Luca Guanziroli outside the shelter “Ciudad Mujer” in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. © UNHCR/Pamela Villars

What does your job as a UNHCR Child Protection Officer involve?

Here in Honduras, when you enter a city neighbourhood, you have limited access to some locations and you don't know how many people might be at risk of displacement or are already displaced. So, you have to find a way to figure this out with the community, while being aware of gangs and other non-state armed groups. UNHCR works with many partners on this, including NGOs and faith-based organisations already present in these areas.

Then the real work of protection starts. We try to find innovative ways to address issues like sexual exploitation, extortion and child recruitment.

What makes your work rewarding?

When I see young people who start to feel empowered, and feel they are proposing solutions on how to deal with the issues they face, that’s very rewarding. For instance, the Head of Office went to a youth centre in a very dangerous neighbourhood we work in. One of the kids improvised a rap song using some of the concepts we had been discussing with young people in this community.

Mateo, 5, and his family fled their home in Honduras after a local gang tried to recruit his brothers and threatened their lives. They eventually found safety in a UNHCR shelter. ©UNHCR/Jordan J. Hay

We also organised a youth consultation in Tegucigalpa. The kids were a little bit suspicious at the beginning – a lot of them were wearing masks during some activities. They were saying, “I don't want to be recognised by potential gang members because they have their eyes on everything.” But slowly, they started to find ways to express themselves and their fears through art. By doing breakdance or theatre or rap – rap is very popular here in Honduras. So to see that kids want to share these things with us, it’s very rewarding.

Given the context you’re working in, you have to build a lot of trust. What is the main message you try to convey to the young people you are serving?

The main message I want to give young people is that we are here to hear you, to learn from you and support you in finding solutions and putting them in place – together.

Our main goal is to have organised youth committees who can identify and address protection risks.

And we are here to support them in organising themselves and addressing these risks, and if needed, connecting with the protection network existing in the country.

 

You can help children fleeing gang violence in Northern Central America find shelter and safety. © UNHCR/Jordan J. Hay

UNHCR is providing urgent protection and assistance in Northern Central America. You can help
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