Unaccompanied Minors: A Case for Integrated Approaches

The attention now being paid to the problem of unaccompanied minors is welcome. Let’s not forget that we are talking about the children of our Americas and that this is neither a recent problem nor one limited to minors. Throughout the world conflict tragically leads to humanitarian crisis including forced migration and the displacement of civilian population.

In the case of the Northern Triangle of Central America the high homicide rates and connected violence is on the scale of a more traditional definition of conflict: the annual homicides rates in this region are between 38, 5 and 91.6 per 100,000.  In the US this would translate to 300,000 homicides (at a homicide rate of 4.7 per 100,000 the actual US figure in 2012 was closer to 15, 000). It is therefore no surprise that that more than three-quarters of unaccompanied minors are from highly violent zones in the three countries that make up the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (as reported by a recent New York Times article http://nyti.ms/1reQwjM)

Most of this violence is perpetuated by rivals gangs or cartels fighting for control of transactions and territory. Civilians are often caught in the crossfire of gang rivalries or extorted for money in exchange for protection. The gangs, which started in Los Angeles for a variety of factors, are a very violent expression of social exclusion. In some ways these gangs have become the social fabric in far too many communities in which they operate. Cartels and other criminal organizations are taking advantage of this to actively promote and participate in human smuggling.

For over a decade, the OAS has been working with its Member States to combat gang violence and address the underlying factors that contribute to the growth of gang culture. More recently, despite the inherent risks and moral hazard, the Secretary General of the OAS Jose Miguel Insulza gave us the green light to work with local partners in El Salvador in order to negotiate a cease-fire between the rival gangs so that amongst other things the communities would have the opportunity to recover and re-build.   Naturally this process has had many critics. However, we felt that given the socio-economic origins of the problem, some form of dialogue would be part of any long-term solution. The tough on crime or zero tolerance approach previously embraced has only resulted in an increase in private security costs, jails that are over-crowded and underserved, and a police force that is at times overwhelmed, weak, and corrupt. In response to this approach and tougher penalties, gangs have become more resilient. Gangs have adjusted their tactics; their leaders have become stronger and more agile, as they continue to be pushed further away from the rest of society and the state.

Los Angeles and many other municipal or county governments have experienced similar problems. In response they developed successful, innovative, and integrated approaches, building around 5 pillars: (1) prevention to decrease gang growth; (2) introduction of modern correctional practices and reintegration of suitable offenders; (3) community policing; (4) agile or rapid intervention when violence does occur to ensure that there is limited escalation and (5) multi stakeholder community led programs. Of course this approach is much broader and more complex than I can discuss in this limited space, but the point is that promising practices clearly demonstrate that integrated approaches that include communities, intervention, education, and social services are more likely to succeed.

Until we can ensure that communities are safe and resilient, we will continue to see a surge in irregular migration including unaccompanied minors, as they and/or their parents seek a better life elsewhere.

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