World Vision prepares humanitarian response to children crossing border

Story by John Iwasaki & Chris Huber

World Vision is preparing partners and supplies to respond in the U.S. to an escalating humanitarian crisis created by tens of thousands of unaccompanied children pouring into the country from as far as Central America.

Unaccompanied children at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Processing Facility. ©Getty Images

Unaccompanied children at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Processing Facility. ©Getty Images

About 60 percent of the children — mainly from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico — say it's because of increased violence in their communities, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Poverty and separation from family members already in the U.S. are other reasons for children making the trek north.

Sixteen-year-old David and his cousin narrowly evaded gunshots as they escaped a three-hour interrogation by local gang members in Guatemala. Unable to return home, they fled north to the U.S. border.

"[Gang members] asked me if I knew who they were, if I could identify them," David said in a report from the U.N. Refugee Agency. "I said 'no' because I knew if I said 'yes,' they would kill me."

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children tried to cross the Mexico-U.S. border from Oct. 1, 2013, to June 15, 2014, the U.S. Border Patrol reports. That's twice as many as for the previous 12 months.

Many children endured poor health conditions, sexual violence, and predators en route to the U.S.

Federal agencies have not given World Vision or other nongovernmental organizations access to the children, most of whom entered the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley section of South Texas. The children are initially held in crowded stations, then sent to temporary shelters in Arizona and elsewhere.

World Vision is prepositioning personal hygiene kits, diapers, clothing, shoes, and school supplies to deliver to children once the organization is allowed to help those detained. The organization also has engaged in advocacy efforts in coordination with Christian evangelical umbrella groups.

Gang warfare and high murder rates make El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Children are fleeing into the U.S. from El Salvador and nearby Honduras and Guatemala.

Gang warfare and high murder rates make El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Children are fleeing into the U.S. from El Salvador and nearby Honduras and Guatemala. (Photo by Heidi Isaza/World Vision 2012)

"We're hoping to get access to the children," said Romanita Hairston, World Vision vice president of U.S. Programs. "We're looking at mobilizing our partners, products, and expertise. Then, should the doors open, we'll be ready."

Children have come to the U.S. to escape "desperate situations, only to find another desperate situation" when they are not allowed humanitarian assistance, she said.

In addition to supplies, World Vision plans to offer play therapy and Child-Friendly Spaces for children harmed by their journey and conditions in their home countries.

But in the larger picture, "the humanitarian crisis must be acted upon not just at the U.S. border, but also in the countries where these children are escaping from," said Amanda Rives, World Vision advocacy director in Latin America. "The only way to stop these children from running to the U.S. is to address the root causes and establish an effective safety net for children."

Last week, the Honduran government unexpectedly closed its child protection agency due to extreme dysfunction and irregularities.

Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have seen increasing drug- and gang-related violence in the past decade. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with 90.4 murders per 100,000 people.

"The extreme levels of violence children endure in their own country is unimaginable," Rives said.

In Honduras, World Vision assisted in the investigation of dysfunctional child protection centers and witnessed firsthand serious cases of child abuse.

"It's no wonder more and more children are risking the journey to the U.S.," Rives said.

World Vision is in a unique position among aid agencies to connect its work in the U.S. with projects in Mexico and Central America that directly support child well-being. Having served in the region more than 40 years, World Vision is working with the Honduran government to ensure that the new child protection institution will comply with international standards and guarantee the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized children.

At Mexico's border with the U.S., World Vision helps youth and parents develop skills to find economic opportunity and provides children with safe places to study and play.

For children detained in the U.S., "we hope that they can return to a safer, stronger, and more caring environment," Hairston said.

 

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