BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Record numbers of unaccompanied children, some barely old enough to walk, are making dangerous overland journeys from Central America to the United States, in a bid to escape poverty and gangland violence at home, the UN children’s agency said.
More than 47,000 children travelling alone - mostly from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - were caught by U.S. border agents on the Mexican border in the past eight months, nearly double the number apprehended between October 2012 and September 2013.
The children try to slip into the United States often to join or find a parent already there, UNICEF said.
"Meeting the needs of these child migrants – some barely old enough to walk – requires strong coordination and cooperation across borders," said Bernt Aasen, UNICEF regional director for Latin America and Caribbean, said in a statement.
The UN agency said several “clear and compelling” push factors are driving children to flee north from Central America – a region with the world’s highest murder rates that is struggling to contain organised crime and gang violence.
"They are often escaping persecution from gangs and other criminal groups, brutality and violence in their own communities and even in their homes, as well as persistent conditions of poverty and inequality," Aasen said.
"These phenomena affect countries throughout the region, as more and more children undertake a dangerous and sometimes life-endangering journey to seek the safety and protection they need outside their home country."
URGENT HUMANITARIAN SITUATION
In response to the wave of child migrants seeking safety in the United States, the Obama administration earlier this week announced it was designating a third military base near the Mexican border to provide emergency housing for unaccompanied children entering the country illegally.
In what the White House has described as "an urgent humanitarian situation”, children in shelters are provided food and medical care as well as help to reunite them with relatives already living in the United States or to search for a sponsor or a foster parent, authorities say.
Administration officials also said they would be asking Congress for an additional $560 million to help the Department of Homeland Security cope with the illegal border crossings.
A rising number of girls and children under the age of 13 without parents or relatives are crossing the Mexican border into the United States, UNICEF said.
"A spike in the numbers of girls among the child migrants is worrying. Girls and the youngest are the most vulnerable and need special protective care," Aasen said.
At least 10,000 more unaccompanied children will try to cross into the United States before the end of September, the U.N. refugee agency estimates.