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Children more vulnerable than ever to violence, exploitation in Central America, pushing thousands to flee to U.S.

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Lauren Fisher

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Washington, DC (June 20, 2014) — New information in the U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report underscores the importance of going beyond law enforcement to providing actual support for the children that fall victim to exploitation and violence. The report, released today, comes as thousands of children are crossing U.S. borders unaccompanied, fleeing from violence and exploitation in Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, causing an escalating humanitarian crisis that stretches from the U.S. down to Central America.

In the TIP report, Honduras received a Tier 2 ranking because it has stepped up law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking. However, in the country, organized crime syndicates and gangs are known to capture, transport, and exploit boys and girls in both labor and sexual slavery. There are few cases that make it to court and the government does not have adequate shelters or programs that can respond to the problem, which continues to grow. Honduras has a law on human trafficking, but there is little implementation to prevent the crime, protect survivors, and prosecute human traffickers.

Recently the government of Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world, unexpectedly closed its child protection agency due to extreme dysfunction and irregularities, thus removing another critical component of the social safety net for vulnerable children.

“The theme of this year’s report is taking people from victim to survivor, but children in countries like Honduras are being denied that opportunity. Even the youngest victims of violence and exploitation have nowhere to turn and are falling through the cracks because their government isn’t offering the services they need,” said Jesse Eaves, senior policy advisor for child protection with World Vision. “If these governments aren’t meeting the minimum standards to protect people from modern day slavery, how can they expect to protect children fleeing from other forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation that don’t get the publicity that human trafficking receives? Now we’re seeing the undeniable result of these failures  children left with few choices running for their lives, vulnerable to all sorts of horrors.”

The Honduran government is planning to implement an entirely new child protection system. Having served in the region over 40 years, World Vision is working with the government to ensure that the new institution will comply with international standards and guarantee the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized children, especially those driven to flee the country.

“The extreme levels of violence children endure in their own country is unimaginable. In Honduras, World Vision assisted in the investigation of dysfunctional child protection centers, and witnessed firsthand serious cases of child abuse,” said Amanda Rives, World Vision advocacy director in Latin America. “It’s no wonder more and more children are risking the journey to the U.S. and no wonder some of them fall victim to human trafficking. They are taking desperate risks to seek protection as security situations continue to deteriorate in their communities and they experience violence within the very institutions charged with their well-being.”

This year alone, more than 60,000 children from Central America are expected to cross into the United States without their parents, and that number is expected to double in 2015. It’s a figure that will only continue to rise unless the U.S. works with Central American governments to strengthen their systems that keep children safe, World Vision warns.

“It’s time to step up. The warning signs have been there and the number of children coming across the border began to steadily rise over the past few years. But there’s been no cohesive or coordinated response and the children are left to pay the price,” Eaves said. “This is more than giving money to border control or responding to the children themselves. The best way to address the problem is to work with countries like Honduras to improve their overall ability to protect children. If the country’s government is doing what it should be doing, then there’s no reason for children to leave, no reason for parents to send their children elsewhere, no reason for children to be vulnerable to crimes like human trafficking. Without a strategic and coordinated response, these kids are being hung out to dry.”

“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. 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,” said Rives.

Unaccompanied child migration is influenced by complex economic and social factors. However, a recent report (PDF) by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) found that the majority of children currently being detained in the U.S. fled their countries due to extreme levels of violence. That essentially makes them refugees and the UN has called this a “forced displacement” as children flee for their lives. 

The TIP report estimates more than 20 million people around the world are victims of modern day slavery, feeding an industry that generates a profit of $150 billion a year around the world. Having this many vulnerable children only creates the potential to add to that number.

“We are disappointed to see Honduras upgraded on the list, with such severe problems still unaddressed. We feel it sends the wrong message to other countries struggling with child exploitation and violence. However, we are committed to working with the government of both Honduras and the United States to ensure that one day every child will have the chance to escape exploitation,” Rives said.

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