UNICEF warns of dangers for migrant children forcibly returned during pandemic

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned of the dangers for migrant children who are being forcibly returned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since early March, at least 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children have been returned from the United States to Mexico and El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras despite serious protection risks in their communities of origin aggravated by COVID-19. Over the same period, at least 447 migrant children were returned from Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras, said UNICEF.

The children’s agency warned that acts of violence and discrimination are being perpetrated against returnees perceived to have been infected with the disease and that they face major protection risks during their reintegration.

“For children on the move across the region, COVID-19 is making a bad situation even worse. Discrimination and attacks are now added to existing threats like gang violence that drove these children to leave in the first place,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “This means many returned children are now doubly at risk and in even greater peril than when they left their communities. It is never in a child’s best interest to be sent back to an unsafe situation.”

Limited public information about COVID-19 testing, treatment and containment protocols in the region is causing confusion and fear among returnees and the general population. In some communities, there are worries that children and families returned from the United States and Mexico could be carrying the virus. This has led to further stigmatization of migrants, said the agency.

UNICEF has received reports of communities in Guatemala and Honduras barring physical entry to outside groups or strangers, including returnees, to prevent local transmission of the disease, it said.

In other instances, migrants have been threatened with violence upon returning to their communities, while migrant reception and transit centers have been threatened or attacked, it said.

UNICEF is aware of some cases where returns have been expedited without first providing migrants with access to asylum procedures and screening for COVID-19. At the same time, countries of origin in northern Central America are stretching their capacities to try to detect COVID-19 among arrivals, prevent further transmission and ensure that returned migrants will be safe in their communities.

UNICEF is calling on all governments to end pushbacks and deportations of unaccompanied or separated children, as well as children with their families without prior adequate protection and health screenings. UNICEF is also urging governments to take additional concrete measures to protect the well-being of uprooted children.