(PANAMA): Thousands of migrant children stranded at borders and in transit cities are at risk of violence and exploitation as COVID-19 sweeps across the Americas, warns child rights and humanitarian organisation Plan International.
Girls, young women and unaccompanied children have been left particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse, abandonment, discrimination and forced labour in the wake of border closures and movement restrictions.
The Americas region is witnessing two of the worst migration crises in the world: the flow of Venezuelan people, mostly settling in Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, and the population of the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) migrating to Mexico and the United States.
Nicolás Rodríguez, Regional Head of Disaster Risk Management at Plan International, said: “Although conditions along the two migratory routes are different, both contexts constitute risks of violence against children.”
“Means of survival are limited. There is no access to job opportunities and thousands are living in small, makeshift shelters. Children’s fundamental rights - such as the right to live with their families, free from violence and with access to
education - have been deeply violated with no answers in sight.”
According to the UN, there are seven million migrant girls, boys and adolescents in the Americas. Many of those making these desperate journeys, especially in the Northern Triangle, are unaccompanied children trying to reunite with their families.
Quarantine measures have led to migrants, who are particularly vulnerable because of their lack of legal immigration status, increasingly becoming stranded at the Guatemala-Mexico border in Central America and at the Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil borders in South America.
Plan International has been calling for measures to address the migration crises and COVID-19 from both short and long-term perspectives.
“Thousands of people are trapped without means of support and without access to basic services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Humanitarian corridors are urgently needed in border areas, to allow voluntary crossings and to protect and support migrants, refugees and displaced people,” Rodríguez added.
Turn back or keep on going: the dilemma of millions
Among those who have fled Venezuela are Victoria*, 14, and her mother Alba, who was forced to sell her hair on the Venezuelan-Colombian border so they could get to Ecuador earlier this year.
Although they initially found cleaning work in Quito, the capital, the pandemic has left them without any income for weeks.
Alba said: “For now we have food and a few savings. We receive financial support from Plan International and that will allow us to relax for a few weeks.”
“Our idea has always been to stay, but we don’t know what may happen, we don’t know if we will have to return to Venezuela.”
According to government estimates, a lack of employment opportunities and dangerous living conditions means that more than 81,000 Venezuelan migrants have decided to go back to their home country, despite the stigma frequently faced by returnees, and severe shortages of running water and electricity.
Amalia Alarcón, Regional Head of Gender Transformative Programming & Influencing at Plan International, said: “Girls and young women are particularly vulnerable, as they experience double discrimination based on both their gender and age.”
“They are more likely to be subjects of sexual exploitation, without their status as victims being recognised due to stereotypes and beliefs that normalise payment for sex with women and girls, yet hold them responsible for this. Likewise, as children, they suffer due to the negligence of local authorities.”
Since 2018, Plan International has developed a Regional Response Programme to the Venezuelan Crisis, and has provided humanitarian assistance to more than 300,000 people in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.
The organisation has also been supporting migrant and host communities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, working to prevent gender-based and sexual violence, improve access to education, and the economic and social empowerment of girls and young women.
Plan International has also been supporting girls, boys, families and communities in 13 countries across the Americas to cope with the impact of COVID-19, and assisting national and local governments to limit the spread of the virus.
*Names have been changed