Lessons and Solutions in Irregular Child Migration: Notes from the Field

“Look for a reason to stay in your country,”

said Susan Ormiston, at the discussion on irregular child migration on February 9th. “Imagine in some of our countries, if our children were thinking all the time about leaving, and risking everything, it’s a big decision and what we’re talking about here is giving them another option.” Earlier this month, we participated in a virtual forum hosted by Children Believe, to discuss the lessons and ideas generated from the 5-year program: Preventing Irregular Child Migration in Central America and Mexico (PICMA). The program was a joint effort, led by Children Believe in collaboration with the ChildFund Alliance, Canada World Youth, Educo, and many more.

The virtual discussion was moderated by celebrated CBC Senior Correspondent, Susan Ormiston. As a journalist, Ormiston has covered the issue of irregular migration across Central America, including, in 2018, walking with a caravan of South American migrants journeying to the Southern US border.

“I met a family in Mexico who for a year had been living in a shelter right on the border,” said Ormiston, “because they were turned back from the US border. She [the mother] was a teacher, and she cried telling me how their life was in limbo, in paralysis really, because they couldn’t go forward and they couldn’t go back to Honduras.”

Ormiston told listeners that at any given time 281 million international migrants are moving from place to place. People migrate for numerous reasons, but irregular migration, meaning migration outside of safe and legal pathways, is often motivated by violence, poverty, lack of opportunities, and lack of community engagement, as well as family reunification.

Many people who migrate feel that they have no other choice, and COVID has only exacerbated the situation.

“Children are increasingly becoming a key feature of global migration,” said Secretary General of ChildFund Alliance Meg Gardinier. “In 2020 UNICEF reported that worldwide more than 33 million children had been forcibly displaced.”

“Those who resort to irregular migration pathways,” added Fred Witteveen, CEO of Children Believe, “particularly girls and young women, embark on a perilous journey, where they lack protection from harm, face sustained human rights violations, trafficking, exploitation, and abuse.” 

Children migrating alone, of which there are many, are especially at risk of these dangers. “We’ve seen children who are extremely young traveling without any guardian, with just a smuggler,” said Dana Graber Ladek, Chief of Mission at the UN International Organization for Migration. 

PICMCA, or CONFIO, in Spanish, was designed to respond to the needs of these migrating children and youth in Central America and Mexico. PICMCA was unique because it took a preventative approach to issues around irregular migration by seeking to improve the lives of children and youth at risk of irregular migration. 

“For me, this is my first experience as an active participant in a project. They [the project] gave us the tools to help other young people, providing knowledge and sharing experiences,” quoted Gardinier from her conversation with one PICMCA participant.

The project reached people from 155 at-risk communities across Central America and Mexico, Maria Isabel Lopez, Country Director for Children Believe Nicaragua, told listeners. She said the project impacted 1.2 million people, 54% were women and girls. 

CWY-JCM CEO and President Susan Handrigan, closed the day’s discussion with several calls to action. She asked that stakeholders increase their investment in youth and strengthen global governing practices for safe migration. She also called on them to increase dialogue between at-risk youth and decision-makers and promote economic resilience – particularly for women and girls. Lastly, she called for an examination into solutions for climate change issues as they relate to the exacerbation of irregular migration. 

“We believe that a long-term commitment to young people, the drivers of social transformation and economic development, is essential in building more prosperous, healthier, safer, and more peaceful societies,” concluded Handrigan.