In the time it takes you to read this blog post, it is possible that a Central American child will have attempted to cross the United States border. Furthermore, over the next three months, more than 34,000 unaccompanied children, primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, also known as the Northern Triangle, are expected to make this treacherous trip. And as if that wasn’t enough, the numbers have been increasing over the past five years. In fact, they have more than doubled since last year and reached over 52,000 in the period between October 2013 and June 2014 alone. Why are children leaving their countries – by themselves– to take a journey known for deadly risks?
Multiple factors influence the decision or need to flee one’s country, including poverty, inequality, violence, risk of recruitment into armed groups, as well as sometimes at the encouragement of one’s family, believing one will be safer in another country. Other factors also include better economic opportunities in the US that could be motivating children to take the perilous journey north. Among all them, very often the main reason why youth from Guatemala and Honduras are leaving their countries is to escape violence that stems from the drug trade and gangs, according to a report from the US Department of Homeland Security from May 2014. Children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras experience the highest levels of violence in the world. In 2012, the homicide rates per 100,000 in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala were 90.4, 41.2, and 39.9 respectively. In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, it reached 169 making it the most violent city in the world.
Often, national and international policies and the media tend to focus predominately on drug policy and security to address this issue. But, what about schooling? Is there anything that can be done from the education system to increase the protection of children at home as well as in countries where they seek refuge?
Based on evidence from countries in conflict, the answer to that question is yes. Schools need to offer a secure space for children, including support to young people on staying safe in their community, as well as in the receiving country. While there are examples of schools contributing to violence, such as when used for recruiting grounds by gangs, they have also been known to provide a safe haven for children and youth, and alternatives to becoming involved with armed groups.
For example, when Marcelo, a young person from Honduras was growing up, he had limited opportunities to study and joined an armed group. After many years, he was able to leave the gang by fleeing to another part of the country and finding a flexible education model that allowed him to study and become a fire fighter. Fabiola also dropped out of school by sixth grade and engaged in risky behaviors but was able to enroll in a flexible education program and turned her life around.
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In the case of these two young people, they found opportunities and have been able to turn their lives around through education. However, many children leaving Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala today experience more serious levels of violence, death threats and are at risk of recruitment into armed groups.
Addressing these numerous challenges requires collaboration across policy and programmatic levels including education, but also health, security and others. Within education it is critical to learn how the school community may increase the protection and support of children. Regionally, including the US, this also means that education policy makers should not limit themselves to using a national lens but rather utilize a child’s perspective and consider the implications of policies within and outside of national borders. There is a need to better understand the local context affecting these children and youth in order to offer a relevant, engaging learning environment that includes not only subject content but also learning about coping with difficulties, staying safe, and finding alternative economic opportunities. Only then might we begin to ensure that Central American children and youth can be safe and create positive opportunities for their future.