Border Children: A Refugee Crisis


“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”

M.K. Gandhi

Recently, there has been a surge of children crossing the border into the southern US border from Central America without any papers or parents. Most of these children are from Honduras (known as ‘the murder capital of the world’), El Salvador and Guatemala. The principal cause of is linked to drugs and its associated violence.

An estimated 57,000 unaccompanied minors have already crossed the border into the US since October of 2013, an overwhelming number which leaves US authorities in an extremely difficult position to be able to process in terms of immigration. President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to be able to hire more immigration judges and border agents in order to be able to deal with this crisis.

These are the basic facts of the situation once these unaccompanied minors have already crossed the border into the United States. But it is of extreme importance to understand why these children have been crossing the border to begin with. Therein lie the brutal, heart-wrenching facts of what the societies of the countries these children are fleeing from have become.

These children are not runaways. Nor are they juvenile delinquents in their homeland. These children are vulnerable to crime and abuse due to gang violence, not to mention the lack of educational and economic opportunities in their homeland. This has caused some parents to entrust guides and to send their children, sometimes younger than the age of six, to make the perilous journey across Mexico into the United States. In some cases, these children join a parent or a relative already living in the US.

In any effect, what is extremely noteworthy is that in the majority of the cases these children are not escaping poverty but violence. Therefore, what the United States is seeing at its borders not an immigration but a refugee crisis. These children should be treated accordingly as refugees and not as illegal aliens.

Gangs in Central American countries from which these children are fleeing have become more and more geared to recruiting foot soldiers for drug sales and distribution, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school. This has made it virtually a living nightmare for children, their parents and teachers to be able to exist with any sense of normalcy, under such grave threats.

These children want to go to school, obtain an education and have respectable careers but the corrupt, drug-infested, violent societies they were born into hardly allow them to do so. Hence the dream and surge to flee en masse up north to the United States. The extreme pressures from the drug cartels leave them and their families no choice but to take the heartbreaking decision to separate from their loved ones and search for better lives in the US.

Thus the the United Nations has recommended that this is not a crisis involving illegal immigration but a refugee crisis. The funds asked for by President Obama from Congress should be utilized to cater to these children as refugees in creating refugee centers operated by the United Nations, where immigration judges could examine case by case whether a child, represented by a lawyer, has sufficient grounds to be able to stay in the United States.

Currently, judges deny seven out of ten applicants for immigration, no doubt simply due to the exponential rise in recent times of unaccompanied children crossing the border and no doubt the inability of the US immigration to be able to handle such a surge of people crossing the borders. Undoubtedly, it is not an easy process.

Having said that, simply basing the judgment on logistical facts and ignoring the human values of what has caused parents to allow their minor children to engage in perilous journeys into a foreign country, and what causes these children to want to do so, is simply wrong. Sending these kids away by deporting them is like handing them a death sentence.

The United States expects other countries to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees based on humanitarian grounds, as can be seen for instance in countries neighboring Syria. Why then should the most powerful, wealthy nation in the world be unable to ‘process’ 57,000 mostly minor, innocent refugees fleeing grave threats to their lives and wanting a life that every child has a right to and deserves? That would completely undermine the United States’ credibility as a humane country.

This is a legitimate case of a humanitarian refugee crisis. The US government’s decision to turn its back on the plight of these children and send them back to some of the most dangerous societies in the world would simply be inhumane.

A great nation does not treat children in such a manner.

By Sabria Chowdhury Balland 

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a Professor of English and French. She is also a columnist for US and European political and legal issues.

Twitter: @SabriaBalland

Photograph by United Nations Photo, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence. It shows Children inside a classroom at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan (2012).

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