COVID-19: Dangers mount for migrant children forcibly returned to northern Central America and Mexico during pandemic

Virus fears compound existing discrimination and violence for returned migrant children, leaving them doubly at risk, UNICEF warns

21 May 2020

NEW YORK, 21 May 2020 – Since early March, at least 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children have been returned from the United States to Mexico and northern Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – despite serious protection risks in their communities of origin aggravated by COVID-19, UNICEF reported today. Over the same period, at least 447 migrant children were returned from Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras.

The children’s agency warned that acts of violence and discrimination are being perpetrated against returnees perceived to have been infected with the disease and that they face major protection risks during their reintegration.

“For children on the move across the region, COVID-19 is making a bad situation even worse. Discrimination and attacks are now added to existing threats like gang violence that drove these children to leave in the first place,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “This means many returned children are now doubly at risk and in even greater peril than when they left their communities. It is never in a child’s best interest to be sent back to an unsafe situation.”

Limited public information about COVID-19 testing, treatment and containment protocols in the region is causing confusion and fear among returnees and the general population. In some communities, there are worries that children and families returned from the U.S. and Mexico could be carrying the virus. This has led to further stigmatization of migrants. UNICEF has received reports of communities in Guatemala and Honduras barring physical entry to outside groups or strangers, including returnees, to prevent local transmission of the disease.

In other instances, migrants have been threatened with violence upon returning to their communities, while migrant reception and transit centers have been threatened or attacked.  

In the context of COVID, the capacity of child protection systems in northern Central America and Mexico has also been compromised due to movement restrictions and the lack of protective personal equipment (PPE) for staff. Unfortunately, this also limits the protection screenings provided to returned unaccompanied children that could reveal threats to their lives and integrity in their homes or communities of origin, including violence.  

Across the region, UNICEF is making efforts to shore up overstretched national protection systems for children.

In Guatemala, UNICEF is supporting the Government to provide accommodation and services to returned accompanied and unaccompanied children, some of whom have tested positive for COVID-19, while they are in quarantine or isolation. At the same time, UNICEF and its partners are providing these children with health care, psychosocial support and family tracing. In addition, UNICEF Guatemala is also supporting communities with prevention campaigns against stigmatization of returnees, and the prevention of violence against girls and boys.

In El Salvador and Honduras, UNICEF is ramping up efforts to protect migrant and returned children. This involves working with governments and partners to strengthen child protection screenings, supporting State agencies in reunifying unaccompanied children with their families including through the provision of transportation, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to child protection authorities, and helping authorities create conditions for safe community reintegration.   

In Mexico at both the northern and southern borders, UNICEF is helping protection authorities to implement protection screenings and is working in shelters to provide remote psychosocial activities, hygiene kits and information material.

UNICEF is aware of some cases where returns have been expedited without first providing migrants with access to asylum procedures and screening for COVID-19. At the same time, countries of origin in northern Central America are stretching their capacities to try to detect COVID-19 among arrivals, prevent further transmission and ensure that returned migrants will be safe in their communities.

UNICEF is calling on all governments to end pushbacks and deportations of unaccompanied or separated children, as well as children with their families without prior adequate protection and health screenings. UNICEF is also urging governments to take additional concrete measures to protect the wellbeing of uprooted children. These include:

  • Upholding children’s right to seek asylum and reunite with family members;
  • Ending detention of all children because of their or their parents’ migration status through placing asylum-seeking and migrant children and families in non-custodial alternatives to detention;  
  • Ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 testing and treatment as well as access to prevention information and water and sanitation services; 
  • Ensuring that competent child protection authorities determine in each case what solution is in the best interest of the child, before any decision is made regarding whether they should be returned to their home communities;
  • Working with countries and communities of origin to address fears related to COVID-19 through risk communication to ensure that returnees can be reintegrated safely and provided with essential services; 
  • Supporting child protection systems to continue to function as essential services for all vulnerable children, including migrants and refugees. 


Media contacts

Laurent Duvillier
UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean
Tel: + 507 6169 9886
Christopher Tidey
Tel: +1 917 340 3017


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