The most powerful countries are increasingly closing their borders to migrant and refugee children with disastrous consequences.
Over the past week, the US administration hit the headlines as photos and audio recordings of unaccompanied children in cages surfaced. Following initial reports of 1,500 children reported as ‘lost’ and unaccounted for in May 2018, a new figure came out which has outraged the public, of over 2,300 migrant children forcibly separated from their parents since May 2018.
A top official from the Department of Health and Human Services reported that the agency had lost track of 1,500 migrant children it had placed with sponsors in the US, between October 2016 and December 2017 leading the public to ask questions about where these children were ending up.
Outrage culminated in sudden calls to action, with the hashtags #WhereAreTheChildren and #MissingChildren becoming a popular way for people to take action and draw attention to the issue. Concerns have arisen with people fearing that these children could end up in the hands of human traffickers or used as labourers by people posing as relatives.
The outrage and calls for accountability intensified as photos of a former warehouse in Texas showing children in cages became the subject of discussion in the US media and public. US Border Control responded by staunchly defending the policy, along with other members of the administration from the US Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who have continued to support President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
Meanwhile, hundreds have joined protests, while human rights organisations have called the policy ‘inhumane’. Public figures, including four of the former first ladies have publicly condemned the mistreatment of children, and some Republican members of parliament have even spoken up, including Congressman Peter Welch, who visited the facility and tweeted “I just exited a border patrol ‘processing facility’ known as the ‘icebox.’ It is nothing short of a prison”.
The issue of documentation and the immigration procedure in the USA has a long history, with stories of families being deported after settling in the country for 10-15 years, with their citizenship application remaining in ‘pending’ status for inordinate amounts of time.
The Trump administration wants to reduce illegal border crossings by 64 percent, and has implemented this new policy of separation, to deter families from seeking protection in the US, even if they’re asylum seekers.
The conflict and instability in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has increased the number of people entering the US, but that number remains very low. Despite this, Trump’s policy seeks to continue to close borders, replicating the types of policies employed by European countries seeking to prevent dealing with the refugee crisis across the pond.
Children suffer the most from strict immigration policies. There is no guarantee of reunification with their families or a clear period of time within which this might occur. Instead, children remain separated from their parents for months, even after their parents have been released from immigration detention.
Many of these children are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who fled drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse in their home country. As with many others fleeing such circumstances, children are left in a more vulnerable position following their entry to the US. Some will run away, others are at risk of leaving their initial sponsors and falling into the hands of traffickers.
In many cases, even formal sponsors have forced children to work instead of attending school, violating their rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
This becomes comparable to the suffering of refugees when they arrive at Europe’s borders. Often referred to as the ‘lost generation’, these millions of young children and unaccompanied minors that have fled their home countries as refugees.
As the border policies of the EU change, so do the migratory routes, and often times the new paths are more dangerous.
Children are more vulnerable, they are at higher risk of physical and sexual abuse, labour and sexual exploitation and to the extortionate services of smugglers and the human trafficking industry. There has been a closure of borders by EU countries, resulting in a lack of safe and legal routes available to children seeking asylum, forcing them to rely on illegal routes. This puts them at grave risk of abduction by traffickers. Their mistreatment often continues into refugee centers and refugee camps.
Refugee camps are often just as inhospitable. A number of child refugees live in these poor conditions, and with their lack of understanding of the asylum process, end leaving the camps. This leaves them prone to becoming targets of organised gangs and criminal networks. At present, there are 170,000 unaccompanied and separated child refugees throughout the European Union living under duress, the threat of violence or sexual exploitation.
Even through the official registration process, children wait in difficult conditions while their application for asylum is processed – as the current situation in the US has demonstrated. The trouble with tightening immigration policies is that the official asylum process takes years. Both in the EU and now in the US, children at risk even as they wait – whether this is in camps or box shelters.
Despite international regulations, the rights of the child are not prioritised and they remain vulnerable to going missing no matter where they are in the world. As the climate of fear continues to manifest in closed border policies by states we have to find a way to ensure we don’t see any more children unaccounted for.