Asylum seekers gather at El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on Aug. 10, as they look for an appointment to present their asylum request before the United States authorities. Photo by: Guillermo Arias / AFP

WASHINGTON — The changing profile of Central American migrants from young men seeking economic opportunities to a more vulnerable population of women and children fleeing violence is posing a challenge to NGOs that serve people before, during, and after their perilous journeys north.

The past few years have seen a huge increase in migrants and refugees coming to the United States from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In those countries, gang violence coupled with corruption, weak institutions, and limited economic prospects has driven a new demographic of people out of their communities.

While all of these factors can play a part, the context is too complicated for there to be a single explanation for the shift, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

Starting in 2014, there was an increase in women and children migrating alone, though there was nothing specific that happened that year to cause it to be the “tipping point” for people crossing the U.S. border, he said.

“What you’ve seen in Central America … as violence rose, is just a loss of faith by people … that life will get any better if they stay in their own country. It’s not that people got poorer, because objectively Central American countries have not gotten poorer all of a sudden. But as they got more violent, as there was a sense of lawlessness around people, more and more people decided that it just wasn’t worth trying [to stay],” Selee explained.

While the overall number of border crossings has fluctuated, data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows that apprehensions of women increased from 14 percent in fiscal year 2012 to almost 27 percent in FY 2017. Girls under the age of 18 make up 32 percent of FY 2017 child apprehensions.

The shifting demographics have forced NGOs on the ground to adapt programming to deal with people who have not only been traumatized by violence in their own communities, but experienced trauma at the hands of smugglers or criminal networks on the route north. Save the Children has projects along the migratory route in the three Northern Triangle countries and Mexico that work to provide vulnerable youth with services both en route and once they have been returned to their community of origin.

The organization has focused on unaccompanied minors, and has been working with reception centers to develop protocols for returning children to ensure there are child-friendly spaces in such facilities. Children can also receive counseling services, and be connected with other government services for follow-up psychosocial support.

A wide range of violence in the Northern Triangle forces people to leave. Individuals who have refused to cooperate with gangs can face very specific threats, while others see their communities become so violent they no longer feel safe there. Children are often targeted by gangs and face punishment if they resist joining, while women and girls can also face reprisal for failing to date a gang member that has expressed interest in her.

“Children are on the front line here … Both women and girls, and boys and young men are targeted,” said Victoria Ward, Save the Children’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Basically El Salvador and Honduras have been divided up by the gangs, and so every place you go in the country belongs to a gang. The levels of violence are tremendous.”

As conditions on the ground in the Northern Triangle have worsened, AWO International, a German NGO that works to educate people about migration and displacement, and its partners face the challenge of striking a balance between providing people with appropriate information about the dangers of the journey, while also recognizing that for many, staying behind is equally risky.

“If [economic migrants] get the information and they know more, they think about it twice. But if they have to flee because of violence reasons, they can’t think, they just go.”

— Karin Eder, AWO International’s regional office manager for Central America and Mexico

AWO, which has an office in Guatemala that works with local partners in Central America and Mexico, provides women with information about what could happen on the migratory route.

“The main problems are [rape], sexual trafficking,” said Karin Eder, AWO International’s regional office manager for Central America and Mexico.

Nearly one-third of women have been found to be sexually abused on their journey. That can range from smugglers or others along the route who ask for sexual favors in exchange for food or a place to sleep, to outright rape. Save the Children has worked with staff at reception centers that provide services to migrants who have been forcibly sent back or who have failed to cross the border, to ensure those who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence have access to appropriate resources. They provide emergency contraception and referrals for further counseling.

People escaping violence don’t have the luxury of taking those dangers into consideration, Eder said: “If [economic migrants] get the information and they know more, they think about it twice. But if they have to flee because of violence reasons, they can’t think, they just go.”

Increased enforcement from authorities across Mexico’s southern border as well as along the migratory routes that traverse that country has driven smuggling networks to adopt more ruthless tactics to get people across the U.S. border.

The changing migrant population and increased presence of children and unaccompanied minors has increased extortion along the route. Migrants and refugees pay a fee, usually around $10,000, to a “coyote” smuggling network responsible for getting them across the border. Migrants and refugees generally have three tries to make it across. But at any point during this route, coyotes can demand extra money to ensure safe passage, and those who don’t pay can be left behind or even be threatened with death.

“The predatory violence against migrants became much worse because they had a vulnerable population, and some smugglers got into extortion because they knew that they could use children as a bargaining chip to extort the parents,” Selee said.

This process also further strains families that have already paid money they don’t have for the journey, and makes those left behind vulnerable to reprisal from smuggling networks who punish them for not paying.

Community reintegration also poses a significant challenge for organizations who are trying to help migrants and refugees. Some people who fled violence cannot return to their homes because they still face danger there, such as women who have fled domestic violence and would be revictimized if they returned to their partner. They become more vulnerable after being deported: They often have nowhere to go and do not have the social support returning to an area with family and friends would bring, so they are in even more need of services provided by NGOs.

Ward describes children who have returned with symptoms “like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]” into government health systems that are not prepared to appropriately treat the trauma they have experienced, so NGOs help fill the gap.

It is also difficult to gauge how many of those people who have returned, either voluntarily or by force, will attempt to make the journey again.

“What I have seen are kids who are coming back having experienced trauma both along the route and then when they’re detained,” Ward said. “Kids come back absolutely petrified of trying to go again.”

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.