Refugee and migrant children fleeing Central America to escape gang violence and poverty are at risk from human traffickers during their journey to the United States, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said on Thursday.
Ten of thousands of children, either traveling alone or with their families from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, attempt to pass through Mexico to the United States every year.
“These families must navigate a long, uncertain journey in which they risk being preyed upon by traffickers or other criminals,” UNICEF said in a report.
Growing numbers of those migrants are being deported, and UNICEF said they are often left deeply in debt or targeted by gangs once they return to their home countries.
According to UNICEF, nearly 24,200 women and children were deported between January and June alone — the majority of them from Mexico.
Strict immigration controls drive migrants and refugees, including children, to take dangerous routes, said Jose Bergua, UNICEF’s regional adviser on child protection.
A caravan of migrants traveling through Mexico to the US border will make have to decide whether to risk being deported home by trying to cross, or to build a life in Mexico.
To avoid detection by authorities, children move in “the shadows, where nobody knows their whereabouts and where criminal actors take advantage of their invisibility,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
There are no figures to show exactly how many child migrants become victims of sexual and labor exploitation.
Children account for three in every five victims of human trafficking in Central America and the Caribbean, with organized crime groups behind much of the multi-billion-dollar business, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
“Kids are targeted by traffickers because they are easy to control, they are vulnerable, and easy to convince and physically overpower,” said Carol Smolenski, director of the anti-trafficking group ECPAT-USA.
Traffickers lurk in squares and migrant shelters, especially in Mexico’s southern towns near the Guatemala border. They lure victims with false promises of jobs and then force them into sex work in bars, campaigners say.
Families pay human smugglers thousands of dollars to guide their children across the US-Mexico border.
“In some instances, smugglers are involved with human traffickers in a mutually profitable arrangement in which the smuggler leads children straight into the hands of trafficking networks,” Bergua said.
Migrants can also end up in debt bondage once they get to the United States.
Upon arrival, smugglers sometimes demand an extra fee from migrants, including children, who must then work off the debt, said Nita Belles, head of the anti-trafficking group In Our Backyard.
Migrant children are also victims of forced labor — a problem that came to light in 2015, after traffickers lured eight teenagers from Guatemala to the United States.
The teenagers were detained by US authorities who failed to conduct proper background checks before releasing them back into the hands of traffickers, according to a 2016 bipartisan US Senate investigation.
Traffickers forced them to work on an egg farm in Ohio for 12 hours a day, for more than a year. At least five people were convicted on human trafficking charges in the case.