El Salvador’s Children Cannot Escape Fear

Translated from María Cidón Kiernan’s June 20, 2018 Revista Factum article

Two recent reports, one from the UN and the other from Cristosal, re-emphasize the fact that violence is continuing to force young Salvadorans to flee their homes and their country. Many try to enter the United States, where they are greeted by severe Trump administration policies that deny them refuge and treat them like criminals.

Photo Global Eyes Media

Photo Global Eyes Media

The United States government acknowledged this week that it has separated more than 2,300 children from its parents, and that it has been doing so since at least the middle of last April. This measure is part of the "zero tolerance" immigration policy recently announced by the Trump administration. The family separation policy was suspended on June 20 after multiple international protests. Although the Department of Homeland Security denies the policy is a strategy to stop irregular migration, the head of the department has been threatening to apply such measures since March of last year "in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network," according to the New York Times.

Separating children from their parents is the most recent in a string of repressive measures integral to Trump’s public policies on migration, including the end of migratory benefits that favored “Dreamers,” children of undocumented migrants brought to the United States when they were very young, and the end of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Most people affected by the child separation policy are from Mexico or Central America, including El Salvador. By June 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that at least 50 Salvadoran children had been separated from their parents. That figure is subject to change as cases continue to be reviewed, one by one. "The data is very dynamic, it changes every day, but we have more or less fifty," Deputy Minister of Salvadorans Abroad Ludovina Magarín told La Prensa Gráfica.

UNICEF nd the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights both condemned the measure, and El Salvador’s Foreign Ministry released a statement on Monday urging the end of family separation and respect for families’ rights.

In line with these anti-migration policies, the U.S. government announced earlier this month that asylum-seekers with a "credible fear" of domestic violence or gang persecution in their country of origin will not be eligible for asylum. The U.S. also reaffirmed its commitment to arrest and prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally. On June 20, after a wave of protests, the Trump administration announced that it will stop separating families, but it did not commit to reunifying families already affected by its zero tolerance policy.

Analysts cited by the Washington Post in a June 20 article claimed that the family separation policy was instituted for the same reason DACA was cancelled: as a strategy to force Congress to pass an immigration law that finances a border wall with Mexico, which Trump promised in his presidential campaign.


The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released its annual 2017 Global Trends report on June 19. El Salvador was ranked as the country with the sixth-highest number of citizens requesting international asylum, with more than 59 thousand cases. Higher on the list are countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, which are dealing with the effects of current or recent warfare.

In most cases, the nightmare that many Salvadorans live daily directly affects women, children, and youth. According to the Salvadoran Institute of Legal Medicine, 3,868 people aged 0 to 19 were murdered between 2014 and 2017; that’s almost three deaths per day.

Cristosal, a nongovernmental organization specializing in the care of families forcibly displaced by violence, released its report "Generation Without Return" on June 20. The report draws attention to the vulnerability of children and youth and the impact violence has on their lives. Between January 2016 and May 2018, Cristosal provided assistance to 675 children and young adults facing violence. The age groups most affected were young adults (18 to 25 years old) and young children (0 to 11 years old). Most had already been forced to leave their homes because of violence by the time they received assistance from Cristosal. Most of the cases came from San Salvador (63 victims), Soyapango (49), Panchimalco (28), and Ilopango (26).

From Cristosal's report "Generation Without Return"

From Cristosal's report "Generation Without Return"

Direct threats were the main factor forcing families to leave their homes (present in 7 out of 10 cases), but homicide and forced gang recruitment were also significant factors. Families identify gangs as the victimizers in 96% of cases, but some also point to police, extermination groups, and the military as perpetrators of violence. 46% of Cristosal’s cases chose not to report the crimes they had suffered to authorities, mainly for fear of retaliation, but also because many families distrust public institutions or lack evidence about their cases.

Families facing violence and displacement suffer practical consequences: half lost their main source of income when they left their homes. Over half of the children who had been in school when their family experienced violence were forced to abandon their studies.

Cristosal’s report also revealed that 89% of families who had migrated in the past had tried to seek refuge in the United States, Costa Rica, or Guatemala.

Meanwhile, El Salvador’s government has neglected to recognize the scale of forced internal displacement by violence in the country, which constitutes a humanitarian crisis. The government recently published a report that calls the phenomenon "internal mobility due to violence," relies exclusively on 2016 data, and claims that only 1% of the people surveyed acknowledged having fled their home because of violence.

The government relies on interviews conducted by the Directorate General of Migration and Foreigners (DGME) to deny that violence is the main reason Salvadorans leave the country. According to a 2017 DGME survey of 4,762 forcibly returned Salvadoran minors (as cited by Cristosal), 35.9% said they had left the country for economic reasons, 32.4% to reunite with family members, and 30.4% because of safety concerns.

The failure to recognize the problem makes it harder to combat forced displacement, a fact that has been pointed out multiple times by Cristosal, several United Nations rapporteurs, and even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, during his November 2017 visit to El Salvador.

Cristosal denounces the child separation policy as dehumanizing, and calls for respect for the dignity of children and their families: "This is a decisive moment for people and communities to defend the inherent dignity of every human being, on any side of any border," says Noah Bullock, Cristosal’s Executive Director, in a statement.

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Hannah Rose Nelson