MPI Report: Amid Spike in Apprehension of Unaccompanied Child Migrants, Mexico’s Screening, Housing & Care of These Children Needs Improvement
WASHINGTON — The sharp increase in apprehensions of unaccompanied children in Mexico and the violent conditions from which many are fleeing have raised concerns about how well equipped Mexican immigration authorities are to protect child migrants, particularly as girls and those under age 12 represent a growing share. More than 50,000 children in transit to the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been apprehended in Mexico since 2014 when the migration of unaccompanied minors reached crisis levels.
Drawing upon previously unpublished government data obtained through the Mexican freedom of information system, interviews with key Mexican officials and accounts from civil-society organizations, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report assesses Mexico’s legal framework for child protection and its treatment of unaccompanied children, from apprehension through detention and adjudication of international protection claims.
The report, Strengthening Mexico’s Protection of Central American Unaccompanied Minors in Transit, finds that while Mexico has undertaken ambitious reform of its child protection system, implementation of these policies is uneven and ongoing.
“Mexico has made promising first steps toward expanding capacity to screen, house and resolve asylum claims, but will need to accelerate this process to ensure that what has been well laid out in law becomes a reality in practice,” writes researcher Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas. “The Mexican child protection system will continue to face strong pressures in the coming years as the underlying drivers of migration from Central America persist.”
Despite Mexico’s generous definition of who is eligible for refugee status, less than 1 percent of the 17,500 unaccompanied children apprehended by Mexican authorities in 2016 applied for asylum, and just 131 were granted some form of protection. While Mexico’s National Migration Institute is required by law to interview all unaccompanied minors and screen them for international protection, only a fraction are interviewed by child protection officers and provided complete and age-appropriate information about asylum.
The report finds a particular mismatch in the deployment of child protection officers, with just 17 percent of them deployed to the three states (Chiapas, Veracruz and Tabasco) that accounted for nearly 70 percent of all child apprehensions last year.
The report also examines the gap between Mexico’s laws requiring that unaccompanied children be housed in shelters run by the federal, state or municipal child protection agencies that make up the Mexican System for Integral Family Development (DIF for its acronym in Spanish). Because of a lack of DIF shelter capacity, 71 percent of children were housed in adult detention centers, receiving DIF services in designated spaces within these detention facilities. Civil society organizations have reported children housed in detention centers often receive inadequate food, housing, education and psychological services, with little space for recreation.
Deportations to Guatemala comprised 52 percent of all child migrant deportations in 2016, compared to 26 percent to Honduras and 23 percent to El Salvador.
The deportation of girls and young children has grown particularly quickly, with the female share of overall child deportations from Mexico rising from 15 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2016. During the same period, deportations of children under age 12 rose from less than 5 percent of all child deportations to 13 percent.
The report makes a series of recommendations, including increasing funding to house children away from adult detention centers and improve their care. It also recommends assigning more child protection officers and increasing children’s access to legal counsel during the asylum process.
“With the violence, endemic poverty and other factors spurring migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle unabated, the migration of unaccompanied children represents an enduring new phenomenon,” said MPI Senior Fellow Doris Meissner, who oversees the institute’s work in Mexico and Central America. “As a result, protection systems across the region must be recalibrated to meet the heightened demand for services tailored to the unique needs of children on the move.”
And for more MPI research on Mexico, click here.
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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels.