Fleeing Violence to Uncertainty: Migration in the Americas

A photo featured in the exhibit, "Children Don't Migrate, They Flee"

A photo featured in the exhibit, "Children Don't Migrate, They Flee"

Life in the United States, in general, is good. A child can go to school, play with neighborhood kids, and sleep with a roof over their heads. Yes, I know our country is not perfect and there are pockets of violence, poverty and food insecurity, but overall, life in our country is safe.

Life for a child living in Central America’s Northern Triangle is not as secure. They don’t have the luxury of feeling safe in their backyard and at times not even in their own home. The homicide rates in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, also known as the Northern Triangle, are among the highest in the world. Compared to the murder rate in the United States, Guatemala and El Salvador are 800% higher and Honduras is close to 1,900%. Sadly, the majority of victims are children.

As I sat in a conference room at the American Red Cross in Washington DC, listening to the “Community Resilience: Evolving Perspectives and Approaches to Migration” conference speakers paint a harrowing picture of what life is like in the Northern Triangle, I kept asking myself, “What is causing this violence; what is the root cause?” Unfortunately we know the end result: live in fear, be killed, watch your loved ones be killed, or escape and trek north through Central America in search of safety.

According to Mary Giovagnoli, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Immigration Policy, Department of Homeland Security and conference panelist, there are many reasons why the situation in the Northern Triangle is as dire as it is: drug trafficking, gang violence, poverty, family violence (especially against girls) and human trafficking. Top that with impunity, corruption, and lack of accountability and transparency within their government and law enforcement, and you have a recipe for suffering, inequality and a harmful environment for children. And that is why they are fleeing.

Audience members weigh-in on the conversation.

Audience members weigh-in on the conversation.

In 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families arrived at the U.S. border. Their story highlighting their plight, their journey and what life was like back home was all over the news. The media have since moved on but this migration issue remains. Two years later many of these children are still in limbo or sent back to their countries with little or no due process to determine whether they need for protection.

Jodi Berger-Cardoso, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, and conference panelist, has interviewed many of these children and emphasized the importance of addressing their mental health needs. She shared with us the trauma, anxiety and psychological stress they have experienced. “These children wanted to stay in their town, remain with their family, play with friends, go to the neighborhood school, attend church. The last thing they wanted to do is leave their loved ones and the only home they have ever known behind.”

Imagine your living conditions are so dangerous that taking the risk of traveling hundreds of miles where your safety and well-being are not guaranteed sounds like a good idea. Now imagine you’re 12-years-old and alone or a young mother with a toddler in your arms.

Listening to the conference panelists and seeing the young faces of those affected on the big screens before me, made me feel frustrated and overwhelmed. So many children in need, so many issues. It felt insurmountable to me. Where to begin, what to do?

I looked around the room at the other attendees and speakers. Seated around me were representatives from the United Nations Refugee Agency, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, Immigration Equality, Honduran Red Cross, ACLU, Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking, Office of Refugee Resettlement, Women’s Refugee Commission, Johns Hopkins University and other advocacy leaders and humanitarian agencies. They understand the plight and know what must be done to help those in need. I realized this was their space, their element, their vocation. These people are fighters, fighting for the rights of children and their families; giving a voice to those who don’t have one. I felt hopeful and thankful for the work they do.

Cynthia Gutierrez-White with photo exhibit, "Children Don't Migrate, They Flee"

Cynthia Gutierrez-White with photo exhibit, "Children Don't Migrate, They Flee"

Building a wall along the U.S. border is not the solution. People in Central America want to stay in their countries, in their communities. Eradicating the root cause will eliminate the need to move north and will give people the safety and security they need to live their lives in peace. In the meantime, the children and families fleeing their homes to the U.S. should be given legal representation and their day in court to determine their level of protection. In addition, today’s immigration laws are inadequate and should be reformed. A solution to this decades-long migration phenomena is possible if we work together and accept that everyone should be treated with dignity and compassion.

American Red Cross works in collaboration with partner organizations in various settings to help reconnect families who have been separated due to crisis, conflict or migration.  By providing basic phone calls and family reconnection services in areas of transit and along the migratory route, the American Red Cross and its partners are able to reduce the human suffering caused by family separation and reduce the potential for exploitation as they are on the move.  In addition to this invaluable service to families, the American Red Cross convenes civil society organizations and other stakeholders to highlight the humanitarian consequences related to migration in countries of origin, transit and destination.

This blog was written and photos taken by Cynthia Gutierrez-White, member of the national communications team for the American Red Cross. Cynthia is a first-generation Latina and resides in South Florida.