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Migrant Children Are Fleeing a Region Rife with Sexual Violence

These circumstances should give deportation advocates serious pause

Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images

More than 1,000 refugee children are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border each week, largely from the violent “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The President has labeled it, quite correctly, a humanitarian crisis. His opponents on the right—and in recent days, some on the left—have asserted that it is the direct result of our failed immigration policies, and the impression given by the Obama administration that “amnesty” is available to anyone who successfully crosses the border.

But the emphasis on “pull factors” and political consequences largely misses the point: These children are not so much coming to America as running from dangerous and deadly circumstances that should give any conscientious deportation advocate serious pause.  

One key factor driving this crisis is the well-documented and widespread sexual and gender-related violence in Latin America. In a 2014 report conducted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 70 percent of children interviewed cited domestic violence as well as violence at the hands of gangs, cartels, or “state actors” (such as police), as reasons for fleeing homes in Mexico and Central America. Sexual violence has become so widespread in Guatemala in recent years that in 2009 Doctors Without Borders launched its first Latin American mission dedicated to treating rape and abuse victims. And gender-based violence is now the second highest cause of death for women of reproductive age in Honduras.  

The UN Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean has called violence against women, adolescents, and children the “invisible face” of insecurity in the region. But such violence serves as something more: a powerful motivator for flight. As one 15-year-old Salvadoran girl told UN interviewers, “In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there." 

Anti-violence advocates on the ground say that two factors drive the high incidence of sexual and gender-related violence in the region: a lack of awareness about the nature of gender-based violence, which has historically been downplayed or normalized, and the absence of official efforts and channels that might encourage reporting of such crimes. The fact that law enforcement and judicial systems are most often dominated by men who are disinclined to pursue sexual violence or trafficking cases, and may in fact be implicated in such violence themselves, further exacerbates the crisis.  

A 2014 American Immigration Council study on why Central American children are fleeing their homes underscores the scant confidence many have in the police, military, or other government agencies. Of 322 child refugees interviewed—the majority of whom had fled their homes because of violence or the threat of violence—only 16 said they had gone to the police. Eight of those children said the police refused to write a report, six said nothing happened after they came forward, and two said they had received increased threats. One child’s accused rapist still lives next door to her. According to a 2012 report on gender-related violence in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras—co-produced by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and Just Associates—government officials and their security forces were often the worst perpetrators of sexual violence used to “intimidate and subdue” those who come forward with charges against men in positions of power.   

Under circumstances such as these, victims must choose between remaining isolated in their silence and speaking out, often only to be blamed, shamed, or subjected to “machista violence”—subsequent retaliation for making an accusation. Children are uniquely vulnerable, particularly when the sexual or gender-related violence occurs in the home or at the hands of a known member of the community. 

Of course, high levels of sexual violence and exploitation are not the only factors motivating the flight of children from Latin America. Extreme poverty and violence associated with the illegal drug trade—a billion-dollar industry fueled in no small part by U.S. buyer demand—play major roles as well. As Vox recently noted, UN reports show that the murder rates in the Northern Triangle were so high in 2012 that someone living in that region was statistically more likely to be killed than a civilian living in Iraq at the height of the war. 

Those who assert that the present border crisis is a result of our own failed immigration policies should consider this: Countries neighboring the Northern Triangle—Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and even Mexico—have themselves seen a 432 percent increase in asylum requests. That even Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the region, has experienced a major surge in refugees from the Northern Triangle is telling. People are fleeing violence and abuse, with or without the promise of economic security. 

President Obama’s initial response to the growing numbers of children and families crossing the border seemed to indicate that he understood, and might seek to address, the root causes of their flight. His use of the words “humanitarian crisis” had legal as well as moral implications, something he surely knew when he uttered them.   

But over the course of the last two weeks, the president has backed away from his initial, conscientious response. By publicly vowing to return children to their countries of origin as quickly as possible, he is not only capitulating to critics who have effectively confused the broader debate about immigration with the specific causes of the child refugee crisis. He may also be condemning tens of thousands of refugee children to be returned to conditions of life-endangering violence. It is especially disheartening to see this administration, which has in recent months taken groundbreaking steps to address rape on U.S. college campuses, failing to grasp the implications of its actions for child rape and trafficking victims beyond our borders.

The bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which was passed during the second term of President George W. Bush, affords children the right to proper screening to assess whether they are victims of trafficking and persecution. In short, it seeks to protect victims of gender-related violence from being thrust back into the circumstances they were so desperate to flee. The Obama administration needs to act swiftly to address the child refugee crisis, not through any extraordinary measure, but through the enforcement of existing laws, the assistance of trained anti-sexual violence experts, the provision of safe housing and competent legal support, and a steadfast commitment to due process. That commitment would by definition exclude rapid deportation.

Obama must view—and speak of—these refugees as children first, victims second, and immigrants last. It’s a simple request. An obvious request, really. We must listen to what our legal traditions and our national conscience already call for us to do.