More than 62,000 unaccompanied children fled Central America for the U.S. border in the past year alone to escape poverty and violence, particularly in Honduras, which became the most deadly country in the world in 2014 — more dangerous than Iraq at the height of the U.S. occupation, according to the Center for American Progress.
While the government plans shutdowns of migrant shelters in Texas, Oklahoma, and California, crime in Central America continues to skyrocket. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2013 that the murder rate in Honduras was 90.4 per 100,000 people, compared to the U.S.'s 4.7, with individual cities like San Pedro Sula struggling with 187 homicides per 100,000.
Iraq's civilian casualty rate in 2007, while in the throes of insurgency, CAP says, was 62.2.
Gang violence is partially driving the unprecedented migration wave, but a corrupt national police force also fuels the crime rate. The Honduran Ministry of Security recorded a homicide rate of 75.6 per 100,000 in 2013 — a significant difference from the UNODC's numbers for the same year, statistics that come as the State Department warns of the Honduran government's lack of "sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases" that allows criminals to "operate with a high degree of impunity" throughout the country. The UNODC also estimates that there are more than twice as many gang members as there are police officers in Honduras, a dire prospect considering the high rates of corruption among law enforcement.
While poverty in Honduras is widespread, violence — both real and feared — is a greater driving factor in the migration swing. Honduran children "come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home," according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Before 2011, CBP encountered roughly 8,000 unaccompanied minors annually. The rapid upswing in Central American migrants entering the U.S. began when crime rates hit another growth spurt following years of police corruption, civil unrest, including a 2009 coup d'etat that saw the overthrow and exile of then-President Manuel Zelaya, and increased drug trafficking. The total number of cocaine and heroin shipments passing through Central America on the way to consumers in the U.S. more than tripled from 2004 to 2011, rising from an estimated 24 to 84 percent. Widespread crackdowns on the drug trade in Mexico and Colombia also pushed crime and gangs deeper into smaller Central American countries that did not have the resources to fight them off.
As gang violence and police corruption persists, the average age of Honduran civilians that face becoming targeted has lowered. According to the Pew Center for Research, children ages 12 and under are the fastest growing group of unaccompanied minors traveling to the border, and almost half of them are girls. The number of girls seeking refuge in the U.S. grew 140 percent over the last year, compared to a 100 percent increase among boys.
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"Due to many factors, including the high homicide rate and alarming levels of other expressions of violence, including injuries, robberies and extortion, Honduras is reported to be among the most violent countries in the world today," said Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, after a visit in July 2014. "In Honduras, violence against women is widespread and systematic... The climate of fear, in both the public and private spheres, and the lack of accountability for violations of human rights of women, is the norm rather than the exception."
When the UN Refugee Agency interviewed (PDF) Honduran children who had fled the country in 2012 and 2013, organized crime and violence in their societies were one of their most highly cited reasons for leaving. One 12-year-old girl spoke about threats of rape and kidnapping that girls in her community faced every day:
In the village where I lived there were a ton of gang members. All they did was bad things, kidnapping people. My mother and grandmother were afraid that something would happen to me. That's why my mother sent me here. They rape girls and get them pregnant. The gang got five girls pregnant, and there were other girls who disappeared and their families never heard from them again.
Migrant children who are able to reach the U.S. live in conditions that are only marginally better than what they face at home. They are warehoused in military bases and overcrowded detention facilities while they wait to see if the government will protect them or send them back home to the unstable environments they were escaping.
"The US government’s policy of detaining large numbers of children harms kids and flouts international standards," said Human Rights Watch researcher Clara Long. "The recent surge in unaccompanied migrant children reaching the US cannot justify longer detention periods... Many [of them] are extremely vulnerable to abuse upon return to their home countries."
At least 90,000 children are expected to arrive on the border by the end of this year.