THE BLOG

Children Fleeing Danger In Central America

18/01/2017 16:38
Ilya Gridneff/AP

Every month, thousands of children from Central America are risking kidnapping, trafficking, rape, or murder as they make their way to the United States to seek refuge from brutal gangs and stifling poverty. Last year, whilst filming for his new show Walking the Americas, explorer Levison Wood met just a few of the thousands of children who have taken, or are considering taking, this dangerous journey.

Last year, I walked the entire length of Central America, beginning in the north-eastern tip of Mexico, through eight countries before attempting to cross the treacherous Darien Gap into Colombia and South America. The trip was one I had been planning for a while, but even the months of preparation and planning hadn't prepared me for some of the stories I heard from the children and families I met along the way.

The families I met are part of a shocking exodus forced to flee systemic violence in Central America's northern triangle, the world's most dangerous region outside an official war zone.

Across Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador children and families are fleeing their homes in search of a better future. Families targeted by violent street gangs with little hope of protection from the overwhelmed, corrupt or simply inept state institutions. In Honduras alone, most of the 400 children murdered in the first half of 2014 were thought to be victims of gang violence.

As huge numbers of refugees, from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and across Africa, continue to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to escape conflict and poverty, a parallel refugee crisis has unfolded on America's doorstep amid an undeclared but increasingly brutal war between criminal groups and security forces.

Walking into the small town of Cuayamel, near the Guatemalan border in Honduras, I met Ariel playing football with some of his friends on a dusty street corner. After a quick kick about, Ariel invited me back to his home for a drink and to meet his family.

Ariel lives with his grandparents and his two siblings in a slightly tumbledown house on a long dirt road. Sat around his kitchen table, Ariel told me how his mother emigrated to the United States almost four years ago, when his little sister, Catherine, was just two years old. Ariel's parents divorced when he was little and whilst his father still lives locally, he doesn't see Ariel much. "I call my grandmother my mom, because she is the one who really raised me" he told me.

Ariel explained to me how his mum is planning to bring him and his siblings to the US to join her, but having heard stories about the dangers on the journey, he isn't sure it's a journey he wants to make. For too many of his friends and family the awful journey ended in disappointment, and for some, it was the last journey they ever took.

In the first six months of 2016, almost 26,000 unaccompanied children and close to 30,000 people travelling as a family, mostly mothers and young children, were apprehended at the US/Mexico border. Thousands more never made it to the border - apprehended, kidnapped, trafficked, murdered, or fallen victim of the harsh environment along the way.

I asked Ariel what scared him most about the journey.

"Me and my friends often talk about the dangers on the journey. I'm afraid of crossing the river - I know people have drowned and I'm not very good at swimming."

As Ariel continued to speak, it became evident that the river was a small fear in comparison to some of the others.

"I'm really scared of being kidnapped... My brother told me that if you get kidnapped and your family can't pay the ransom then the gangs will just kill you. Kill you and use your body to transport drugs."

You would think stories like these would be uncommon, but it was one I heard a lot during my journey.

Undocumented travellers who take a bus or hop a freight train will almost certainly be detained by immigration agents. Those who choose to walk face a gruelling two-day journey through remote forests - and risk robbery, rape, abduction and even death at the hands of armed robbers who prey on the men, women and children heading north.

We'd crossed the border at the official checkpoint, showing our passports and following official protocol, but for the children and families leaving in search of a better life, this isn't an option.

Sisters Sayda, 15 and Cecia, 14, told me that when they crossed the border, they'd had to do it at the dead of night, walking through the mountainous jungle on a treacherous path in the pouring rain. The girls' mother had paid a Coyotaje, or Coyote, the local name for the people smugglers, to transport the girls to her in the United States.

The vast majority of those who make the journey north do so with the help of the coyotes, named after the scavengers that prowl the border.

The coyotes are profiting from the increasing violence in the gang-controlled cities, and the desire of families to be reunited; parents often make the journey to the US first in search of opportunity and save money to bring their children, sometimes years later.

Families pay anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 per person for the journey across thousands of miles in the care of smuggling networks that in turn pay off government officials, gangs operating on trains and drug cartels controlling the routes to the US border.

The sisters made it as far as Guatemala City, but even that short journey had left them terrified at the prospect of the rest of the journey and they made the decision to turn back and return to the known dangers of home, rather than risking the unknown risks of continuing their journey to the US.

Due to the increasing dangers travelling overland, a rising number of migrants are heading out to sea in small open boats to evade the immigration officials and bandits who have proliferated along Mexico's southern border. Just a few months before I arrived in Cuayamel, a local girl had drowned.

Speaking to Unicef's Hector Espinal, he told me that children deported back to Honduras often spoke of violent encounters with armed robbers and corrupt police. The constant threat of sexual violence against women and girls was also a huge issue, with some even forced to sleep with the coyotes in exchange for their "protection".

Organisations like Unicef are working to tackle the root causes that are forcing people to leave their homes as well as ensuring that children and families making the journey are protected on every step of the way, but it is clear that this is a huge challenge. And yet small things can make a huge difference - Through programmes aimed at keeping children in school and providing psychosocial support to children affected by gang-violence, it is hoped that fewer families will be forced into taking dangerous journeys in search of a better life.

Ariel now volunteers with a local group called Com Vida, which, with the support of Unicef, works to support children and families who may have previously tried to make the journey or who may be thinking of making the journey themselves. Through activities such as singing and drama, the volunteers make sure that children are aware of the dangers they may face on the journey, and encourage families to find other ways to deal with the challenges they may face. "If I wasn't involved with Com Vida I don't think my life would be the way it is right now" he tells me.

When I ask Ariel about his hopes for the future, he sits deep in thought for a moment, before replying "I want to be a responsible citizen, and earn a living for my family in an honourable way." For such a young man, the responsibility he feels towards not only his family but also his country is remarkable, and leaves me slightly speechless. I'm left with the hope that, if we can provide Ariel's generation with the support and protection they so desperately need, they could be the leaders their countries need on the road to a brighter future.

Walking the Americas. Channel 4 Sundays at 8pm. Walking the Americas, by Levison Wood, is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton on 23rd February.

'An Evening With Levison Wood' will run nationally from Feb 20th to March 27th. Tickets on sale now via Ticketmaster.

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