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April 20, 2022

Responding To: Innovating Protection for Children Along the Migratory Route and at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The Right to Be and Belong: (Re)imagining Protection for Migrant Children and Youth in the Americas

Rodrigo Barraza, Regional Co-Director for the Americas, Global Fund for Children

Migration often offers thousands of children and young people the opportunity to access rights, services, and spaces of independence that are commonly denied, strengthening their agency and allowing them to contribute to the well-being of their families and communities. It holds the potential to be an empowerment strategy that allows them to expand their autonomy and leadership.

However, and in an increasingly alarming number, the mobility of children and youth is commonly shaped by multiple systems of oppression and violence that begin in communities of origin, intensifying throughout their entire migratory route. In 2021 alone, nearly 160,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Amnesty International, at least six out of ten migrant women (especially minors) have suffered some type of sexual violence during their transit. Despite reunification efforts, nearly 1,500 migrant children in the United States remain separated from their families.

At the origin, marginalization, violence, gender inequality, and the lack of educational and employment opportunities cause disorderly and precarious mobility. In transit, criminalization, persecution and labor, and sexual exploitation are sadly daily situations. At the destination, family separation, the lack of protection mechanisms, and institutional abandonment further deepen their vulnerability. The return is, in many cases, a traumatic experience that hinders access to their most basic rights, such as the right to identity.

Along the Guatemala-Mexico-United States border corridor it is possible to identify a significant number of social organizations, institutional actors, and communities that are directing their efforts to the accompaniment and protection of migrant children and youth.

However, the lack of resources and the evident risks they face have forced them to adopt approaches that are mostly assistance-oriented, aimed at providing legal support and humanitarian aid. Without undermining these initiatives in any way, it is necessary to adopt increasingly comprehensive strategies that are committed to systemic and long-term change.

It is precisely in response to this need that the Global Fund for Children (GFC) has implemented, since 2017, the transnational initiative, "The Right to Be and Belong." Its main objective is to offer flexible financing, capacity development opportunities, and collaborative spaces to community and grassroots organizations, aiming to create a transnational network for the comprehensive support and empowerment of migrant children and youth in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States.

To date, the initiative has 14 local partners working in these three countries on issues such as advocacy, community education, development of intercultural communities, and promotion of youth leadership, among others. In addition, three regional meetings have been held in Mexico (Tapachula and Tijuana) and Guatemala (Quetzaltenango) to exchange experiences and learning and identify joint strategies. More than 12,000 minors have directly benefited from the initiative.

Five years after the beginning of this experience, GFC has been able to collect important lessons regarding the protection of migrant children and youth. 

The Importance of Building Welcoming Spaces

One of the most traumatic consequences of migration, which profoundly weakens the feeling of security and protection of a child or young migrant, is the experience of uprootedness. Loneliness. The loss of a sense of belonging.

Mobility often produces a feeling of exclusion, of "being an intruder," with serious consequences for the physical and emotional health of migrant children and youth.

It is essential, therefore, to offer them physical spaces that they can own and shape, with multiple purposes and activities aimed at their comprehensive protection: communication with their families, follow-up on legal procedures, workshops and training, accessing emotional support, having exchanges and moments of relaxation, etc.

The promotion of welcoming spaces co-designed by migrant children and youth allows them to reinforce their sense of individual and collective belonging, functioning as a starting point for comprehensive and long-term protection strategies.

The Need to Promote Collective and Intersectional Dialogues

On many occasions, protection is understood as a strategy focused almost exclusively on an individual or family group. Therefore, it is essential to strengthen a collective sense of protection at two levels:

  • At the transnational level, it is important to develop actions and strategies that "bring closer" border spaces, allowing actors to identify common challenges and, at the same time, recognize contextual differences. For this particular initiative, organizations located on the northern and southern border of Mexico have been able to complement their support and protection strategies due to this process of dialogue and mutual recognition. The same must happen at all levels, with multiple actors and stakeholders sharing their approaches, challenges, and lessons learned regarding the protection of migrant children and youth. Comprehensive responses are born from collaboration and exchange.
  • When working directly with migrant children and youth, it is essential to confront the narratives centered on the individual “case” and facilitate diverse dialogues that promote agency, cooperation, and solidarity, understanding childhood and youth as a collective political identity.

Mobility must be understood as an experience that transcends the individual component and that, therefore, requires protection mechanisms designed from a collective perspective that seek to restore and reinforce a sense of community. Protection is always a collective responsibility.

The Urgency of Confronting Adult-centric Models

Often when thinking about the protection of children and youth, this is associated with passive practices that occur without their leading participation and they are seen as mere recipients of aid.

Recognizing the enormous violence to which they are exposed, we must stop considering migrant children and youth as simple victims. Their voices deserve to be heard, and the strategies that they implement every day to dignify their experience and amplify their protection mechanisms must be constantly recognized and strengthened.

It is necessary to implement dignified protection mechanisms that focus their actions on unrestricted respect for the best interests of children. Mechanisms that allow us to access the worlds and languages ​​of children and youth, understood not as victims and passive recipients, but as political subjects with agency, with the right to care and be cared for, and with multiple resources from which we can learn to imagine new worlds.

Protection is not the absence of risk. It is the active, collective, and intergenerational promotion of well-being, always putting children and youth at the center.

Rodrigo Barraza supports community-based organizations throughout the Americas by co-leading Global Fund for Children’s grantmaking and capacity development work in the region. He has extensive experience engaging boys and young men in promoting healthy masculinity and advancing gender justice. Barraza also has extensive experience working with migrant children and women in Mexico’s southern border region and is knowledgeable about youth empowerment in Latin America.

Other Responses

Paulina Olvera Cañez
Espacio Migrante

Paulina Olvera Cañez, Founder and Director, Espacio Migrante | April 20, 2022