Statement of Adriana Beltrán
Senior Associate for Citizen Security, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Congressional Progressive Caucus
“Protecting Children Fleeing Violence: Examining the Southern Border Humanitarian Crisis”
July 29, 2014
Good afternoon, Representative Grijalva, Representative Ellison, Representative Chu, and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the caucus today on behalf of WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America.
My name is Adriana Beltrán and I coordinate WOLA’s citizen security program. For over three decades, WOLA has worked to promote comprehensive reforms to address the root causes of violence in Central America and ensure effective and accountable police and judicial systems.
I am here today to share my views about the root causes behind the plight of children and families fleeing from Central America to the United Sates. It is important to understand the magnitude of the community-level violence and impunity that these children and families are leaving behind them, and will be returned to, if we fail to take into account and address these dangers.
Children and families have been fleeing to the United States in record numbers since 2009, although the numbers have spiked dramatically in the past two years. Since October 1 of last year, approximately 60,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained while crossing into the United States, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
What drives a child or teenager to leave his or her home community in San Salvador or San Pedro Sula, and risk everything to make the extremely dangerous journey north? For many of these children, it is knowing how terrifying and potentially life threatening not going could be.
Behind the wave of children and families at the border, two factors stand out: violence in their home communities and lack of opportunities, particularly for young people and those from poor and marginalized areas.
Context and Factors Compelling Children to Flee
Desperation due to the endemic levels of violence in the region has led many children, youth, and families to flee their homes and communities in search of a safe haven. They are not just coming to the United States, either: according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, from 2008 to 2013, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize saw a combined 712 percent increase in the number of asylum requests for individuals from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. It is worth noting that Nicaragua, the poorest country in the region, is not seeing large increases in outmigration. In fact, it is receiving asylum seekers from other more violent neighboring countries.
Children and families are not just seeking refuge across borders, as evidenced by the increase in internal displacement. According to recent research, over 130,000 people were internally displaced in El Salvador, many two to three times, due to security threats in 2012 alone. Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, noted that there are neighborhoods in Honduras where all the houses are empty; entire families have relocated to other parts of the country due to violence, threats, and insecurity.
Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, known as Central America’s Northern Triangle, are among the world’s most violent countries. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Honduras ranks first globally with a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 inhabitants. El Salvador ranks fourth with a rate of just over 41 and Guatemala ranks fifth with a rate of nearly 40. In comparison, the United States has a homicide rate of 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, and the United Kingdom has a rate of 1.0. Other countries in Central America, with the exception of Belize, have significantly lower rates of homicide as well.
A Department of Homeland Security document revealed that San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and Juticalpa in Honduras; and San Salvador in El Salvador were the main cities where the children apprehended at the U.S. border came from. These cities are among the most violent in the region. San Pedro Sula, for example, is the murder capital of the world with an annual homicide rate of 187 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Youth from marginalized communities are disproportionally affected by the high murder rate and violence. In Honduras, data compiled by Covenant House revealed that from January to June of 2013, 409 children under the age of 18 were murdered. In neighboring El Salvador, so far this year the murder of children under 17 has increased by 77 percent from the same period a year ago, according to the police.
Although the overwhelming majority of victims are male, women and girls are increasingly victims of violence as well. In Honduras, for example, murders of women and girls have increased over 263 percent between 2005 and 2013. In addition, a 2011 study by the Geneva Declaration showed that El Salvador has the highest rate of gender-motivated killing of women in the world, with Guatemala and Honduras in third and sixth place, respectively. The high rates of gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle may be contributing to the sharp rise in unaccompanied girls as a percentage of the children arriving this year. According to the Pew Research Center report released last week, the number of unaccompanied girls under 18 intercepted at the border rose by 77 percent this fiscal year, with a particularly high rate of girls arriving from Honduras. Moreover, the homicide statistics are just one measure of the pervasive violence in many of these communities. People are often afraid to report threats, extortion, assaults, disappearances, and sexual violence because they do not trust local authorities.
Much of the violence sending children and families to the border has been attributed to transnational drug trafficking. In recent years, Central America has experienced a growing presence and influence of drug cartels due to stepped-up enforcement efforts in Colombia and Mexico. Drug trafficking is in large part responsible for the rampant levels of corruption and erosion of the justice and security systems.
However, while the drug trade is a factor, cartels are more interested in seeking a low profile than engaging in extreme violence against the population. Instead, the violence in Central America is primarily community-level violence, including domestic violence and child abuse, extortion, street-level drug dealing, and gang-related violence.
Street gangs impact every aspect of life in the neighborhoods and communities they control and are responsible for a significant percentage of the violence. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18 (18th Street), and other smaller groups engage in violent turf battles, kidnapping, human trafficking, and the extortion of local businesses, bus drivers, and residents. Failure to pay often results in harassment or violence. Street gangs also engage in small-scale drug dealing. However, little evidence exists to indicate that they engage significantly in international drug trafficking. According to UNODC, their primary focus continues to be on local issues, such as dominating a particular extortion racket or drug distribution area.
Gangs sometimes employ “join or die” recruitment practices, forcing many children and youth to drop out of school or relocate. In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, for example, 91 percent of teachers surveyed by United Nations officials in five secondary schools reported gang violence and harassment as a major problem. In El Salvador, the Vice Minister of Education noted that at least 200 schools were under the control of gangs.
Victims of extortion, kidnapping, sexual abuse, and death threats frequently find no protection from the authorities. In fact, many fear the police as much as the criminals. Effective law enforcement, from prevention to prosecution, is vital to the protection and well-being of communities. However, in the Northern Triangle countries rule of law and law enforcement institutions are weak and corrupted. The majority of police forces are underfunded, plagued by poor leadership, and sometimes complicit in criminal activity. Substantial evidence shows that the police and criminal justice institutions have been infiltrated and captured by organized criminal groups. Recent efforts to purge and reform the police forces have made limited progress, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala, and impunity remains the norm in all three countries. From 2011 to 2013, 48,947 people were murdered in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In those three years, the countries only managed to achieve 2,295 convictions, or less than 5 percent of the cases.
Given this context, it is not surprising that children and youth consider fleeing their communities in search of safety and protection. These children have no other options.
Compounding the problem of violence in these countries is the lack of opportunities, particularly for young people, the poor, and the lower-middle class. Seventy-five percent of those living in rural areas in Honduras live in poverty. Seasonal work on the bigger farms that export coffee, sugar, and other crops is poorly paid. Coffee, a primary cash crop in Central America, is suffering from a devastating fungus— “coffee rust.” Twenty percent of the half million jobs in Guatemala directly tied to the crop have already disappeared, according to the New York Times.
A 2012 World Bank study stated that employment in Central America continues to be primarily in low-skilled jobs with low-skilled workers, underscoring the need to create more and better jobs and strengthen the education and job training necessary for unemployed youth to break the poverty cycle and contribute to their own, and their nations’ future. In poor communities, where access to resources is scarce and education levels are relatively low, many youth see gang life as one of the few viable economic alternatives.
There is no magic solution to the endemic violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle. These are profoundly difficult problems that will require short and long-term responses. Unless the factors that originally drove these children to flee are countered—including the corruption of local law enforcement—it is likely that many children will return to the United States rather than stay to become victims of the spiral of violence in their communities.
Adding major funding for border security will not solve the problem. The United States has more than enough border security personnel and infrastructure deployed across the U.S.-Mexico border; it needs to concentrate existing resources along the small portion of the border where the need to process children is overwhelming capacity.
There is urgent need for the Congress to step up and provide funding to protect the children who are fleeing violence in Central America. Congress should not leave town without addressing the immediate need to ensure that children at the border are treated humanely, and their cases are evaluated individually. Children should not be deported back to situations that threaten their lives.
For children and families who are deported, immediate funding is necessary to support in-country programs to receive, protect, and reintegrate children, teenagers, and families. USAID and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) should support multi-stakeholder repatriation efforts that provide initial reception and trauma counseling and prioritize child welfare standards. The protection needs of unaccompanied minors returned to their home countries needs to be paramount in repatriation planning and funding. We should also support the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF’s efforts to work with local authorities, service providers, and human rights organizations to strengthen protection mechanisms in-country on reintegration and accountable child protection systems in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Repatriation planning should incorporate serious reintegration elements from the outset, including partnerships with comprehensive programs for urban youth which prioritize vocational skills and insertion into the job market. We should also help our neighbors deal with this crisis by providing assistance to Mexico and other countries in the region to strengthen their capacity to process asylum applications, given the dramatic increase in the number of applications in those countries.
Policy should prioritize alternatives to detention in the United States, and funding should ensure that Customs and Border Patrol’s short-term holding facilities meet humane standards. Resources should ensure that cases of migrants with asylum claims are individually evaluated, migrants with appeals for humanitarian relief are given access to an immigration judge, and that trafficking victim claims are evaluated. Funding should also provide legal representation for unaccompanied children and other migrants requesting asylum or other forms of relief, and address the backlog of cases before immigration courts.
Congress should also begin to face the long-term problem. The United States should prioritize assistance packages for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that address the widespread community-level violence and underlying poverty that is endemic in these countries.
The problem is not simply a question of resources. Funding must be strategically targeted and be accompanied by institutional reforms that address corruption and accountability with country-specific efforts to strengthen law enforcement, criminal justice systems, and the rule of law.
WOLA has dedicated considerable time to examining the effectiveness of violence prevention programs in the region. In 2009, in conjunction with the Inter-American Development Bank, we developed an online database to closely and systematically track and monitor citizen security assistance provided by the U.S. and other bilateral and multilateral donors to Central America. The findings of the mapping tool reveal that greater coordination and a common, long-term comprehensive strategy are greatly needed to improve aid effectiveness.
Evidence suggests that continuing investment in community-based violence prevention initiatives that involve local community groups, churches, police, social services, and government agencies can make a real difference in reducing youth violence and victimization. In the Salvadoran suburb of Santa Tecla, for example, a multi-year effort begun in 2003 to establish community councils and a local violence prevention program has been able to achieve a 40 percent drop in homicides compared with the rates in surrounding communities.
Stemming the flow of young migrants who are seeking refuge from violence will mean providing substantial support for evidence-based violence prevention programs at the community-level and for the reintegration of children and youth forcibly recruited into gangs.
These efforts need to be paired with programs to help those governments committed to public security reform build effective, accountable, and professional police forces, prosecutors, and courts. To date, U.S. assistance has placed too much emphasis on equipment, infrastructure, and training that barely touch the surface of the problems. Corruption, transparency, and accountability must be a central component of a strategy.
Similarly, greater investment over a sustained period of time is needed to support job training and job creation programs focused on urban youth in targeted communities, particularly from areas of high violence. This can help increase employment income, reduce the pull of gangs, and reduce incentives for migration. Support should also be provided over a sustained period to small-scale agriculture, including marketing and technical assistance, to improve rural communities’ ability to provide livelihoods for their citizens.
The draft legislation in the Senate takes some immediate steps to invest in the protection of children and families. It also invests in civil society organizations that can hold public institutions accountable for results both in policing and governance. And finally, it invests to strengthen effective law enforcement and the justice sector. This is the direction U.S. policy should move toward in the future.
Finally, the Central American governments must do their part. Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala must increasingly assume the financial burden that is required to transform their government and societies through fiscal reforms, improving tax collection and insisting that their elites pay their fair share.
There are no quick fixes for addressing these complex issues. The United States and the Central American governments have an opportunity to act decisively and support a comprehensive, targeted strategy to address the cycle of violence and poverty. I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
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