Forced From Home. The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America. Background and report

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Forced From Home
The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America

Forced From Home
English Executive Summary
Forced From Home
Spanish Executive Summary

 Other resources


In the last two years (since 2012) the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States seeking protection has gone from 7,000 to over 60,000 a year. On a single day recently, the authorities took 1,000 children into custody as they crossed the border into the U.S. alone, without a parent or guardian. The majority of these children come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Children like Jenny.

Jenny opened her front door one day and there were pieces of a body thrown in a plastic bag on her doorstep as a warning from the gangs about what would happen to her if she did not become the "girlfriend" of a gang member.

The U.S. is not the only country in the region seeing a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children seeking safety. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) reports that it has seen an increase of 712% in the number of asylum applications from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to countries other than the U.S., such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize.

On June 2, 2014, President Obama ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to lead and coordinate the relief effort to care for these vulnerable youngsters while they are in federal custody, calling this an urgent humanitarian crisis.

It is clear from interviews with these children, and from reports in their countries of origin, that violence and a drive for survival are motivating the exodus. 

In June 2012, the Women's Refugee Commission and the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP conducted field and desk research to look into the reasons for the sharp increase in the number of chil­dren migrating alone, including gang violence and drug cartels, and the U.S. government's response, including conditions and policies affecting unaccom­panied children. We interviewed more than 150 detained children and met with government agencies tasked with responding to this influx.

The U.S. government is responsible for protecting children who are apprehended alone or without caregivers. When children are apprehended or turn themselves in to Customs and Border Protection, they are processed and placed in immigration removal proceedings until they are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is a sub-agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. Until parents, legal guardians or other appropriate caregivers are located, these children remain in the custody of ORR while their legal case is pending.

In 2012, and again in 2014, ORR opened several emergency "surge" shelters, including at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, to move chil­dren out of Customs and Border Protection holding facilities.

The Women's Refugee Commission has long advocat­ed that the child's best interest be the basis for ev­ery decision regarding custody, legal procedures, protections, immigration status determinations and repatriation. Poli­cies should ensure that the child's wishes, safety and familial and cultural needs are in ac­cordance with international humanitarian law and U.S. child welfare principles.

The report Forced from Home lays out recommendations to remedy these gaps, which have become further aggravated as more unaccom­panied children come to the United States, and to protect and bring justice to the children.