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Children fleeing violence, poverty, and abuse in Central America face a separate challenge prior to reaching the United States border: Mexican authorities.

These children come mainly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which is known as Central America’s Northern Triangle. In 2015, Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM), the agency responsible for enforcing the country’s immigration laws, made nearly 36,000 apprehensions and detentions of children under the age of 18. Just over half of those children were unaccompanied. Most unaccompanied children entering Mexico are boys between the ages of 12 and 17, although about-one quarter of child migrants are adolescent girls. Younger children typically travel with their families, but sometimes travel on their own. While some of these children travel north for economic reasons, most are fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries. Children escaping Central America cite forced gang recruitment, rape, sexual harassment, abduction for ransom, extortion, and other generalized violence as reasons for leaving their homes. Unaccompanied children also flee when grandparents or other elderly caregivers are unable to protect them from violence or threats due to their advanced age.

In theory, Mexico provides broad protections to child refugees as mandated by both national and international law. However, in practice, Mexican authorities consistently fail to provide intercepted children with the required assistance. In 2010, Mexico enacted the “Law on Refugees and Complementary Protection,” which adopted the definition of a refugee from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Mexico is a party. Based on the Convention, Mexico defines a refugee as someone who is outside his or her country of nationality and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Mexico ratified in 1990, requires that states parties “take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status…receive[s] appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which the said States are Parties.” Additionally, the Convention mandates that child detention “shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” In accordance with the Convention, Mexican law provides “protection to refugees as well as to others who would face risks to their lives or safety if returned to their countries of origin.” Further, the 1951 Refugee Convention mandates that refugees have “free access to the courts of law on the territory of all Contracting States,” among other legal protections.

In practice, less than one percent of unaccompanied children intercepted by Mexican immigration authorities are “recognized as refugees or receive other formal protection in Mexico.” While Mexican law requires special protection for child refugees, many children are unaware of the rights and protections available to them. In violation of Mexican law, two-thirds of undocumented Central American children in Mexico are not informed of their rights by Mexican immigration agents. When refugee children are aware they can claim asylum in Mexico, Mexican officials often threaten them with longer detention sentences to dissuade them from filing claims.  Additionally, the INM is woefully understaffed to fully provide for the thousands of children entering the country annually. There are only 15 agents qualified to assess asylum claims, which leads to extended periods of detention for children who are awaiting protected status. Further, as part of its practice of detaining refugee children, the INM splits up detainees by sex. This leads to opposite-sex siblings traveling together being separated from each other for extended periods of time, which violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’s provision against arbitrary interference with family.

By detaining thousands of refugee children and failing to inform them of their rights, Mexican immigration authorities put them at risk for abuse both within the country and in their home countries if deported. In failing to protect these children, the INM continuously violates both domestic and international refugee law. In order to be compliant, the INM must first limit widespread detention of children, especially unaccompanied children. Separating opposite-sex siblings and detaining them in different centers causes unnecessary psychological harm to vulnerable children. Additionally, the INM must train additional officers to review asylum claims in order to expedite the asylum processes for the thousands of children currently in detention. Further, the INM must ensure that its officers inform children seeking asylum of their rights and may not attempt to coerce them into self-deporting by threatening extended detention. Mexican authorities have failed to protect the thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America and seeking refuge or safe passage through Mexico. In order to abide by both domestic and international law, Mexican authorities must improve their processes for receiving and protecting unaccompanied Central American children traveling through and escaping to Mexico.