COMMENTARY – The number of refugees, especially women and children, fleeing Central American countries seeking for a better life is continuously growing. The migratory movements taken in conjunction with the practices of human trafficking - that are widespread in Central America – are having destroying effects on the life of many migrants and, in particular, on children. Being a child and being a refugee are the two characteristics that create fertile soil for human smugglers that exploit young and vulnerable individuals. The human rights abuses that these children suffer everyday need to stop and a clear solution that considers the whole problem need to be found.
As Langberg1 has pointed out, the issue of human trafficking – especially of women and children – in the Central America region has often been underestimated and understudied. In recent years, however, an effort has been made by international organisations to dampen the lack of attention towards human trafficking. In particular, the need for more consideration has stemmed from the intersection between the issue of human trafficking and the one of migrants, fleeing Latin American countries to seek for a better future especially in the United States but also in Mexico and Costa Rica (the wealthiest of Central American states.)
The urgency of the matter is clear: the UN Refugee Agency has recently called for immediate action “to help hundreds of people fleeing violence in Central America that has surged to levels not seen since the region was wracked by armed conflicts in the 1980s.”2 Moreover, considering that, as Happold points out, “the majority of refugees in the world today are women and children fleeing from civil conflicts”3, this article will focus on the specific condition of refugee children, who are smuggled by criminal traffickers and forced into exploitation.
The refugee crisis in Central America
As the New York Times4 has reported, the number of migrants moving from Central American countries towards the U.S. had increased severely in the past few years. The routes undertaken by these people are various ones, however most of them, once arrived in Mexico, are stopped over there and their hopes of crossing the border to reach the United States completely vanish. Thus, most of them apply for the refugee status in Mexico. Nevertheless, “as Mexico has blocked refugees from moving forward, it places enormous obstacles in the way of being able to apply for asylum in Mexico.”5 Moreover, “of those who are able to hold out for a decision, only about 20 percent win - less than half of the roughly 50 percent asylum approval rate of the United States.”6
These numbers are simply too low: just to give another example, Mexico granted asylum to 18 children last year. As the journalist from the New York Times Nazario points out, ultimately, “if a child is fleeing danger in his or her home country, and that child knocks on our door pleading for help, we should open the door.”7 The condition of vulnerability of a child can’t be forgotten or underestimated, especially considering what these children are escaping from: the Northern Triangle of Central America - Honduras’ high criminal rates, Guatemala’s organised violence and El Salvador’s gangs.8
The current system of migration policies is clearly not working. “Although President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico said when he announced the so-called Southern Border Plan that it was to “protect the human rights of migrants as they pass through Mexico,” the opposite has happened”9, as reported by Nazario. Many migrants have been rescued by kidnappers in recent years: they say that they are often tortured and forced into prostitution, with the local police and migration authorities sometimes complicit in the abuse.10 Some of them are enslaved working in marijuana fields, controlled by criminal organisations.11
If they’re not kidnapped and smuggled, many immigrants get locked in detention centers. The treatment they receive is unhuman and degrading and violates fundamental human rights guaranteed by international Conventions. Moreover, things get even more complicated and delicate in cases of unaccompanied minors who are often separated from their families whilst their cases are pending. As Turck explains, “asylum decisions are a matter of life or death”12 and should be put under review in the current system, especially considering the traumatizing experiences that both adults and children – who are, by nature, more vulnerable and thus more likely to be exploited - go through.
Trafficking of children
Article 2 of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children states:
“The purposes of this Protocol are:
(a) To prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children;
(b) To protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights; and
(c) To promote cooperation among States Parties in order to meet those objectives.”13
The United Nations set out the Protocol in 2000, in order to take action and bring aid to the victims of human trafficking throughout the world. Remarkably, Article 2 of the protocol specifically focuses on the condition of women and children who are considered as particularly vulnerable actors and easier to exploit. As the UN’s Global Initiative for Fighting Human Trafficking reported, “Children are trafficked for forced labour, domestic work - considering the growing demand for cheap labour -, as child soldiers”14 but especially for sexual exploitation. Victims of forced labour lose their freedom and become real “modern-day slaves”15, usually experiencing physical and psychological harm and with no prospective of pursuing a better life. The circle of poverty, scarce access to education and illiteracy is then perpetrated over and over again, with these young human beings leaving their country and then getting smuggled by criminal organisations.
When children arrive in a different country aiming at seeking help as refugees, their vulnerable condition is even more prominent and their state creates an easy way for traffickers to exploit them. This particular condition needs to be addressed by international organisations and Governments since a clear need for action is prominently required. The crime of human trafficking violates many fundamental human rights and the intersection with the condition of refugees of these children creates fertile soil for further human rights violations. The UNHCR responded to the needs of victims of human trafficking getting involved in order to: “to prevent refugees and other persons of concern (asylum seekers, returnees, stateless and internally displaced persons) from becoming victims of human trafficking”, “to ensure that international protection needs of trafficking victims which may arise as a result of their trafficking experience are properly identified” and “to assist States in ensuring that trafficking victims who are without identity documents are able to establish their identity and nationality status.”16 These are vital initiatives. However, a specific focus on the needs of children has to be adopted if we want to tackle the issue at its roots.
UNICEF has contributed to the focus on refugee children who are also victims of human trafficking. Specifically looking at the Central America example, UNICEF reported that poverty is one of the main contributing factors to migratory movements and, thus, to children trafficking. For instance, “Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. GDP is $ 1,126 per person, only $ 126 above the limit of qualification of a middle income country.”17 Nicaragua is considered both as a country of origin and transit in relation to human, and particularly children, trafficking. Moreover, as Edwards reminds us, the “UNHCR considers the current situation in Central America to be a protection crisis. We are particularly concerned about the rising numbers of unaccompanied children and women on the run who face forced recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual- and gender-based violence and murder.”18
But how does the trafficking network work? The smuggling network is getting more and more organised through the use of a number of different routes. Intricate contacts and strategic points are often used for transferring people, including crossing places on the borders. UNICEF19 specifically counted a number of 300 “blind spots” where people can cross the border to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. Moreover, a facilitating factor that increases the possibility for refugee children to be smuggled is the growing number of people moving from one country to the other, seeking for help. As Sturm20 reported, in 2015 the number of asylum claims by people fleeing the Northern Triangle of Central America has increased of 164 over 2013 and 65 per cent over 2014 in Mexico. Furthermore, Costa Rica hosts today 3,616 refugees with 2,203 asylum claims registered in 2015.
Importantly, as much as we need to focus on the roots of the issue and address the problem from where it stems from, the ultimate involvement of countries where refugee children are smuggled to, needs to be taken into account. In accordance to this approach, the U.S. has been identified as one of the top destination points for victims of child trafficking and exploitation. As UNICEF USA has discovered, cases of human trafficking have been reported in all 50 U.S. states.21 These are important data to be considered at the very basis of the crisis that nowadays affects Central America: many other countries are involved and much attention should be paid not only towards the countries where children trafficking starts, but also to the ones where it ends. The implication of a country like the U.S. needs to be addressed and the involvement of this world force not forgotten.
To address the current crisis in Central America, as the UNHCR has stated, “Special measures are needed to ensure that the specific protection needs of child victims of trafficking are addressed. Such measures should include, but not be limited to, a formal determination of the best interest of the child and a systematic assessment of the child’s international protection needs.”22 This is absolutely vital, in the current state of things, for Central American countries facing a real humanitarian crisis.
The intersectional approach that should be adopted needs to be a firm point in analysing the strategies available to international organisations and governments to bring humanitarian aid to the children being victims of human trafficking. An approach of shared responsibility also needs to be implemented in the context of the Northern Triangle’s violent and persecutory atmosphere that forces people to flee their country. Once again, it is stressed how a special form of assistance should be provided for children, making sure that their asylum claims are done with enough support – medical, legal and cultural - so that the possibilities to be deported and brought back to their home countries are extremely low.
To conclude, much still needs to be done, but international organisations are already working towards an improvement of the current situation, and this a first, fundamental step. Whilst working towards a long term solution, for the moment the call of the UNCHR23 to governments to introduce legal avenues for refugees to migrate - so that they won’t have to rely on traffickers and expose themselves to abuse - will hopefully be heard and seriously considered in the forthcoming future.
1 LANGBERG Laura (2005), “A Review of Recent OAS Research on Human Trafficking in the Latin American and Caribbean Region”, International Migration Journal, 14, 1-2, pp. 129-139. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0020-7985.2005.00315.x/full
2 STURM Nora (2016), “UNHCR calls for urgent action as Central America asylum claims soar”, UNHCR. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/4/5703ab396/unhcr-calls-urgent-act...
3 HAPPOLD Matthew (2002), “Excluding Children from Refugee Status: Child Soldiers and Article 1F of the Refugee Convention”, American University International Law Review, 17, 6. Available at: http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi
4 NAZARIO Sonia (2015), “The Refugees at Our Door. We are paying Mexico to keep people from reaching our border, people who are fleeing Central American violence.” The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/opinion/sunday/the-refugees-at-our-doo...
8 TURCK Mark (2015), “Central American refugees return with spring”, Al Jazeera America. Available at: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/4/central-american-refugees-r...
9 NAZARIO Sonia, Op.Cit.
10 STILLMAN Amy (2016), “'All you can do is run': Central American children fleeing violence head for Mexico”, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/feb/10/central-ameri...
11 SHELLEY Louise (2007), “Human trafficking as a form of transnational crime”, in “Human Trafficking”, Routledge. Available at: https://books.google.ch/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=Rm0QBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA116&...
12 TURCK Mark, Op.Cit.
13 OHCHR, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/ProtocolTraffickingIn...
14 Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN), “Trafficking of Children”. Available at: http://www.ungift.org/knowledgehub/en/about/trafficking-of-children.html
16UNHCR (2009), “Human Trafficking and Refugee Protection: UNHCR’s Perspective”. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/4ae1a1099.pdf
17MORAGA Olga, UNICEF-Nicaragua (2012) “Human trafficking in Nicaragua”. Available at: http://en.unicef.org.ni/prensa/15/
18 STURM Nora, Op.Cit.
19 MORAGA Olga, Op.Cit.
20 STURM Nora, Op.Cit.
21 UNICEF USA, “Child Trafficking”, Available at: https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/protect/trafficking
22 UNCHR, Op.Cit.
MR – Research Assistant at CIPADH
Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN), “Trafficking of Children”. Available at: http://www.ungift.org/knowledgehub/en/about/trafficking-of-children.html
Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN), “Trafficking for Forced Labour”. Available at: http://www.ungift.org/knowledgehub/en/about/trafficking-for-forced-labou...
HAPPOLD Matthew (2002), “Excluding Children from Refugee Status: Child Soldiers and Article 1F of the Refugee Convention”, American University International Law Review, 17, 6. Available at: http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi
LANGBERG Laura (2005), “A Review of Recent OAS Research on Human Trafficking in the Latin American and Caribbean Region”, International Migration Journal, 14, 1-2, pp. 129-139. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0020-7985.2005.00315.x/full
MORAGA Olga, UNICEF-Nicaragua (2012) “Human trafficking in Nicaragua”. Available at: http://en.unicef.org.ni/prensa/15/
NAZARIO Sonia (2015) “The Refugees at Our Door. We are paying Mexico to keep people from reaching our border, people who are fleeing Central American violence.” The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/opinion/sunday/the-refugees-at-our-doo...
OHCHR, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/ProtocolTraffickingIn...
SHELLEY Louise (2007), “Human trafficking as a form of transnational crime”, in “Human Trafficking”, Routledge. Available at: https://books.google.ch/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=Rm0QBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA116&...
STILLMAN Amy (2016), “'All you can do is run': Central American children fleeing violence head for Mexico”, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/feb/10/central-ameri...
STURM Nora (2016), “UNHCR calls for urgent action as Central America asylum claims soar”, UNHCR. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/4/5703ab396/unhcr-calls-urgent-act...
The Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Refugees 1951. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10
TURCK Mark (2015), “Central American refugees return with spring”, Al Jazeera America. Available at: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/4/central-american-refugees-r...
UNHCR (19-20 October 2009) “Human Trafficking and Refugee Protection: UNHCR’s Perspective”. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/4ae1a1099.pdf
UNICEF, “Child Trafficking”, Available at: https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/protect/trafficking