The United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) is warning that Central American child refugees and migrants are falling prey to traffickers as they attempt to escape gang violence and poverty.
Many of these children are en route to the United States, either traveling alone or with their families from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
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“These families must navigate a long, uncertain journey in which they risk being preyed upon by traffickers or other criminals,” UNICEF said in a report. The agency also pointed out that migrants that end up being deported by the United States are left in deep debt and targeted by gangs when returned to their countries of origin.
Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:
“Kids are targeted by traffickers because they are easy to control, they are vulnerable, and easy to convince and physically overpower,” said Carol Smolenski, director of the anti-trafficking group ECPAT-USA.
Traffickers lurk in squares and migrant shelters, especially in Mexico’s southern towns near the Guatemala border. They lure victims with false promises of jobs and then force them into sex work in bars, campaigners say.
Families pay human smugglers thousands of dollars to guide their children across the U.S.-Mexico border.
“In some instances, smugglers are involved with human traffickers in a mutually profitable arrangement in which the smuggler leads children straight into the hands of trafficking networks,” said Jose Bergua, UNICEF’s regional advisor on child protection.
Nita Belles, head of the anti-trafficking group In Our Backyard, also explained how migrants can become victims of debt bondage after they arrive in the United States, which smugglers demanding extra fees from children who have to work to pay off the debt.
There are no figures on the number of migrant children who are trafficked for sexual exploitation or for forced labor, but UNICEF says their invisibility makes them an easy target.
Children move in “the shadows, where nobody knows their whereabouts and where criminal actors take advantage of their invisibility,” said Bergua.
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