Holly Burkhalter is vice president for government relations for International Justice Mission.
It is not news to Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran children that they are at high risk of violent abuse and have nowhere to turn for protection. But now that they are fleeing across our border by the tens of thousands, it is apparently news to U.S. policymakers. The drug trade that is destroying Central American societies is clearly part of the problem. But kids aren’t only fleeing narco-violence and gangs ; they are also trying to escape sexual abuse. The United States should commit significant foreign assistance to address this overlooked aspect of the child migration crisis.
Consider the case of Guatemala. Large numbers of children are preyed upon by adults, usually someone in the home or otherwise known to the victim. A study by Doctors Without Borders found that, among 14-to-18-year-old girls in high-crime zones, 1 in 3 had suffered sexual assault in the previous 12 months. Child victims of sexual violence are highly vulnerable to homelessness, sex trafficking, gangs or addiction. In its safehouse in Guatemala City, La Alianza (Covenant House) provides shelter and care to girls as young as 12; virtually all of them have been assaulted in their homes or trafficked for sexual exploitation.
The Guatemalan government has responded to this epidemic by adopting new child protection standards in its protocols for prosecutors and designating a special police sexual assault unit in the capital. But police, prosecutors and courts remain dramatically under-resourced and undertrained; tens of thousands of cases are backlogged and going nowhere.
International Justice Mission recently conducted a study of the 36,166 complaints of sexual assault filed in Guatemala’s Public Ministry (the country’s prosecution service) from 2008 to 2012 and found that the courts have successfully adjudicated a paltry 5.8 percent of these cases. Only one case in 10 even makes it to indictment, because law enforcement and prosecutors are unable to professionally question victims, gather evidence, apprehend perpetrators or secure appropriate forensic medical reports. Men who prey on impoverished children know they need not fear apprehension or prosecution.
When kids aren’t protected at home, at least some of them will flee. A recent report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees stated that 22 percent of the Central American child refugees they interviewed said they had survived abuse and violence in their homes.
Congress is expected to increase funding for the Central America Regional Security Initiative, which has received $800 million over the past five years to combat the drug trade. But stabilizing this immigration crisis should not be limited to fighting narco-trafficking. Congress should seize the occasion to fund promising initiatives that could protect vulnerable children and stabilize slum neighborhoods where sexual violence is rampant. Guatemala City’s special sexual assault police unit should be replicated, funded and deployed throughout the country. Providing police with mentoring on actual, real-time child sexual assault cases and increasing their collaboration with prosecutors can raise competence and morale quickly.
U.S. aid could also scale up Guatemala’s innovative first-response facilities for sexual assault victims, where prosecutors and judges receive testimony, forensic medical personnel collect evidence and defense attorneys represent the interests of suspects. There are nine of these facilities based in the offices of the Public Ministry. Additional assistance could be used to add a trauma care component to the model and take it to scale throughout the country.
Investment is desperately needed for residences and drop-in centers offering shelter and protection for abused, trafficked or homeless children. High levels of violence in slum neighborhoods and sexual abuse at home have contributed to nearly 15,000 Guatemalan kids living on the street. They are easy targets for traffickers, pedophiles and gangs. These are the conditions that are pushing a substantial percentage of child migrants across international borders. The United States could and should help the government develop a functioning child protection service that collaborates with responsible nongovernmental organizations to offer refuge and education to at-risk Guatemalan youth.
If the United States and European governments, donors and international development institutions do not prioritize taking predators off the streets and creating more safe residences and programs for vulnerable kids in the region, we can expect to see ever-growing numbers of unaccompanied children fleeing their terrifying homes and nations and seeking safety in ours.