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Undocumented and alone

Evan Romero-Castillo / dbJuly 1, 2014

The US-Mexico border is dangerous. All the same, hundreds of desperate Central Americans try to cross to the US illegally every day, among them a growing number of unaccompanied minors.

A young man next to a sign pointing to the US border (Foto: John Moore/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

The figure is alarming: Almost 50,000 young people under the age of 18 tried to illegally enter the US from Mexico last year.

Every day, unaccompanied children and youths set out for the border, hoping to flee poverty and violence in their native countries, hoping for a better life in the United States.

The number of refugees has almost doubled compared to the previous year, and is expected to double again next year, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center. These figures, however, don't truly reflect reality: the statistics only include youths apprehended by the border police. No one knows how many minors actually make the dangerous journey from Central to North America.

Violence and poor economies

Most of the youngsters are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - the poorest states in Central America. One out of four is Mexican.

Poverty and fear of violence in their own countries are the main reasons Latino teenagers try to flee to El Norte. Countless young people are killed every day in Guatemala and neighboring states, caught in the crossfire of disputes between criminal gangs or as victims of robberies.

A border fence along a mountain range (Foto: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
The border between the US and Mexico is heavily guardedImage: AFP/Getty Images

People who flee from violence have a right to asylum in another country, says Leslie Velez, a senior protection officer at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Earlier this year, the UNHCR interviewed several hundred young refugees to find out why they left their native countries.

"If a country was to reject these people from their borders without allowing them any access to asylum protection or complementary protection processes, it actually would be in breach of the conventions," Velez, one of the author's of the UNHCR report, told the US National Journal.

A surge in asylum applications by Central Americans hasn't just hit the United States, either. Refugees are also heading to Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama for refuge. The number of asylum applications in these countries has risen sevenfold since 2008, Velez says.

Vulnerable children

It's mainly the prevalence of violence in many Central American nations that drives children and youths away from home, says Isabel Rosales. "They don't embark on such a dangerous journey just because they hope they can make more money in the US that they can then send their parents," the researcher at Germany's Hamburg-based GIGA Institute says. They take that step because the violence in their native countries has made it impossible to stay, she explains.

A train passes a wall with grafitti (Foto: Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)
Many people try to cross the border on the roof a trainImage: AFP/Getty Images

A state is responsible for a child's wellbeing, Rosales told DW. But in those states, she says, "an education is not guaranteed and there are almost no opportunities for young people." Criminal gangs take advantage of the lack of public interest, she says, adding that violence against girls and women drives them away, too.

Late reaction

The US is seeking a solution to the surge of children illegally entering the country. President Barack Obama has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Department of Homeland Security to manage the crisis. Meanwhile, critics accuse the government of reacting too late.

"It's a humanitarian crisis," Rosales warns.

The problem is urgent, Leslie Velez agrees, and points out that fighting poverty, unemployment and corruption in the refugees' native countries is as important as humanitarian aid. The countries the young people headed for should also get together to offer them more protection. She urged a greater exchange of information between the countries affected, as well as rethinking the restrictive US and Mexican immigration policies. To a good part, it's due to the latter that many people attempt to cross the borders illegally and undocumented and at a much higher risk, she says.