Oct. 13 2015

The Long Walk North: Getting to Know Central America’s Child Migrants

October 15 Conference Maps Political and Social Factors Behind the Migration

Donald Trump's comments notwithstanding, undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of them minors traveling their own, continue to cross into the United States in search of better lives. According to federal estimates, close to 75,000 unaccompanied children have completed the journey since 2013, with many more apprehended by border patrols along the way.

On October 15, a conference at Barnard College, “Surge: Politics, Violence, and Children in Central America and Mexico,” will shine a light on the social and political factors shaping this migration, the child migrant experience and the humanitarian response. Co-organized by Manuela Orjuela-Grimm, assistant professor of Epidemiology, with Jairo Guzman of Coalicion Mexicana, the program will approach issues from violence and political unrest in Honduras to the implications of a recent border crackdown in southern Mexico.

Child migrants from the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras make the months-long journey on foot, sometimes accompanied by smugglers who are often children themselves. If they are turned back, many attempt the journey multiple times, driven by conditions in their home countries. For example, in Honduras, which experienced a military coup in 2009, only half of high school students graduate. Especially in poor communities, they are recruited into violent gangs and prostitution. Yet much of the child migrant experience is unknown. “This conference will help us get a better understanding of who the children are, why they have come, and what they have gone through,” says Orjuela.

The emerging facts will lay the groundwork for future research by a multidisciplinary working group made up of experts from across Columbia University. Orjuela, with Helena Duch, assistant professor of Population and Family Health, and Shakira Suglia, assistant professor of Epidemiology, plan a study of migrant children to document stress exposure and response to stress, as well as markers of chronic disease and neurocognitive outcomes. They will focus on migrants in New York City, where a large number of them live. Unlike most of the country, New York provides them with legal services and childcare, and facilitates health coverage.

As the make their way north, child migrants travel alone. At the same time, they rely on formal networks, including Jesuit-run shelters in Mexico and Central America (the head of this network, José Alberto Idiáquez Guevara, is one of the conference speakers), as well as informal networks like extended family. Conference speaker Mark Canavera, a researcher in Population and Family Health, says informal networks are an opportunity to help the children. “One of our great challenges is how to encourage policymakers and practitioners to more systematically take stock of and build upon natural helping mechanisms rather than working in parallel to them,” Canavera says. Yet any such effort must distinguish between those who help children and those who exploit them. The journey has become increasingly dangerous with the proliferation of smugglers (known as coyotes) who more recently have links to organized crime.

Even as they struggle to survive and avoid capture, migrants around the world face discrimination—an experience which can inflict lasting damage. All eyes are now on migrants streaming into Europe after fleeing the war in Syria. And recently, Sweden has recently seen the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan. South East Asia is also seeing its own refugee crisis as thousands flee Burma and Bangladesh.

“Some of the most vulnerable people in the world—who should be garnering relatively straightforward public sympathy from host populations where they arrive,” says Canavera, “instead are subject to discriminatory attitudes and policies that are rooted in geopolitical considerations.” These attitudes are foisted on migrant children, “who have no political voice or clout.”

While Donald Trump is far from the only recent figure to vilify migrants, American opinion isn’t set it stone. Changing attitudes isn’t easy, but it is possible. In recent weeks, the image of a dead boy in Turkey fleeing the war in Syria motived many in Europe to open their homes to migrants. But is this kind of tragedy necessary? asks Canavera. Could there be a more affirmative approach? “What else would work to persuade people in the United States to mobilize for these children, who are instead portrayed as invaders, intruders, parasites, etc.?” Whether or not the upcoming conference produces an answer to this question, its dialogue promises to take a serious and sympathetic look at the plight of child migrants and ways to help them in their journey to achieve healthier and more secure homes.