Families and childhood on the move, Guatemala-Honduras border
The long road of migrant families fleeing violence and natural disasters in the hope of obtaining better livelihoods to survive and provide a better future for their children.
The heat is humid and intense, misty. The noise is deafening: dozens of trucks and trailers keep their engines running. Some drivers desperately go for the klaxons because they have been trying to pass immigration control at the El Cinchado border pass between Guatemala and Honduras for hours, but transit is slow, very slow. On the side, entire families walk between the vehicles that wait in a row. They march in silence, with a blank stare, on the long and complicated road to the American dream.
A few meters from there, at a gas station on the Guatemalan side, the midday sun hits hard. To one side of the convenience store there is a long, shady hallway. A Venezuelan family that is taking a break on their long trip to the United States slept there, washed clothes and hung them on the a fence that divides the gas station from a field.
They are a small part of the thousands of migrants walking north. In 2021, at least 480,000 families and 147,000 unaccompanied children crossed the US-Mexico border, according to US Customs and Border Protection. In 2022 the numbers show the same trend. In the first half of the year alone, more than 76,000 children and teenagers have traveled alone to the United States.
Gabriel (41), Carmen (29), and their daughters Carla (10) and Ángela (8) left Peru for the United States last September. They walked, hitchhiked, got on buses, boats, trucks, motorcycles and cars. They crossed the dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama called the Darien Gap, from which they emerged only with their lives, barely. They lost their tent, their clothes, their shoes, but never their hope. They are heading to the United States with the clear idea of settling there and get a job that will allow them to support themselves and send money to their family in Venezuela.
On that hot Guatemalan noon, 40 days after the start of their trip and after visiting the Assistance Center for Migrants and Refugees (CAPMiR, acronym in Spanish), they took a moment to rest. At CAPMiR, UNICEF and its partners serve migrant children and their families to give them information about safe routes, their rights, and access to available protection services, and they also provide health care. They can take a shower, wash their clothes, access the internet, re-establish communication with their relatives and charge their cell phones.
The Darien jungle was a traumatic experience for this Venezuelan family. They walked for eight days in a row, between 10 and 12 hours each day. They went up and down mountains, passed through swollen rivers, smelled death and saw corpses. They lived with all kinds of insects, and lost their shoes in knee-deep mud.
On top of all that, the girls were lost in the jungle, separated and alone, for two days. Each one of them remembers the experience differently and resorts to different defense mechanisms to face what happened there. Carla, the oldest, saw a person with the throat cut lying inside a tent and it is still hard for her to get that image out of her head. The little girl, Ángela, sees everything as an adventure and was lucky enough to be protected by strangers. A man took care of her during the two days that she was separated from her parents. He helped her to get across a terrain where many get stuck forever.
Ángela had her birthday while crossing the Darién and remembers it as a “happy jungle birthday”, although her parents regret not having been able to give her any gifts. In the jungle, her father was threatened with a gun to his head, but nothing was stolen in the end. They had nothing worth taking.
They all got sick as soon as they left the jungle. They were battered, with injured feet. Carmen, the mother, arrived in Guatemala unable to sleep for days and with nightmares. They took care of her at the CAPMiR and gave her some advice to feel better. “They told me that when I'm nervous or I'm thinking something bad that I should cross my arms and pat myself. That's what the psychologist told me and it has helped me, now I sleep better," she said.
Making the decision to migrate can be attributed to a number of factors, including fleeing organized gang violence, hoping for a better livelihood, or being left homeless or jobless after losing everything thanks to a natural disaster.
This last scenario is the case of a family of 11 Hondurans, who, after the passage of hurricanes Eta and Iota through Central America in 2020, were left homeless. Most of the members of that group were little boys and girls. When they passed near a Mobile Humanitarian Unit supported by UNICEF and its partners, which patrols the route to assist migrant families, they stopped for a moment to listen to information and receive humanitarian assistance.
These units, which have a safe space, air conditioning and internet equipment, carry out daily tours along the migratory route. Through these mobile units, migrants are provided with psychosocial support, information on how to protect themselves as a family, especially boys and girls, how to take care of themselves on the migratory route and the rights they have when migrating.
“Since 2017, migration to the United States has been on the rise. Caravans of up to 12,000 people have tried to cross Central America and Mexico. In 2022, UNICEF and its partners have provided support to more than 11,000 boys and girls in transit through Guatemala. Half of them travel alone,” said Pilar Escudero, UNICEF communication officer in Guatemala.
It is impossible for centers like the CAPMiR or the mobile units to solve all the problems that migrants suffer, but they are “a balm for the situation they are going through,” said Keily Gabriela Brenes, child protection operator in the Program of Mobile Units at border points. The solace they provide was confirmed by another Venezuelan, 30-year-old Aleiris Pernia, a stylist who travels with her tattoo artist boyfriend on the same route as Carmen, Gabriel and the girls. Aleris has also been traveling for two months and upon arrival at the center they offered her medical attention. “They called a nurse because I had a headache, they gave me some pills, they were very kind, everything was cool,” said Pernia.
Officials who work there take their time to listen to the stories the migrants have. They believe that just by listening to them, the families already feel better. But the children are the ones who express their love more openly. “It is very gratifying to know that with something so small, like a balloon, a crayon, a plasticine, a boy or girl leaves happy and forgets for a moment their real situation. See how they laugh, how they laugh and play, how they don't want to leave the unit. They are happy and going back to their parents is often going back to their reality,” said Brenes.
The Venezuelan sisters also showed appreciation for the treatment they received. It felt like an “angel freshening me up,” said Carla of the bath she received. “I felt, how do you say that emotion? Joy?", asked Angela.
Regardless of the reasons for leaving the country of origin, migratory or legal status, children and their families in a situation of mobility have rights. UNICEF is working with national authorities and partners to give migrant children the opportunity to be protected, learn, be healthy and fulfill their potential.
In 2022, thanks to donor contributions, UNICEF and partners reached approximately 5.2 migrant children across Latin America and the Caribbean through primary health care, immunizations, nutrition services, water, hygiene and sanitation, psychosocial support, alternative care and support for the reunification of unaccompanied children, as well as other child protection services.
But the needs continue to grow. UNICEF is urgently seeking 293 million dollars by 2023 to meet the critical needs of 8.7 million children and teenagers in the region, affected by migration, internal displacement due to violence, and natural disasters.
 Source: United States Customs and Border Protection (2022), UNHCR (2022), Government of the Republic of Panamá (2022), Panamá Red Cross (2022), BBC News (2021), R4V (2022), Yates (2021), MMC (2021, 2022).
 Fictional names for identity protection.