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How can we apply our learnings to keep more children safe at home?

POSTED February 28, 2022

How can we apply our learnings to keep more children safe at home?

A Children Believe virtual panel discussion delves into the growing issue of irregular migration in Central America and Mexico, giving insight into what I’ve learned from talking to youth in our programs

By Fred Witteveen, CEO,

Girl stands in front of display for coffee and smoothies

A few days ago, as part of International Development Week, I participated in a virtual panel discussion Children Believe hosted with the ChildFund Alliance (of which we are a member) and Canada World Youth called Promising Solutions and Lessons in Addressing Irregular Migration of Children in Central America and Mexico. The basis of the discussion was the final project results of our five-year Global Affairs Canada-funded project Preventing Irregular Child Migration in Central America and Mexico (PICMCA).

We had a distinguished and relevant roster of panellists. (Cristina Oropeza from the Mexican Embassy to Canada; Dana Graber Ladek, chief of mission for International Organization for Migration Mexico; Meg Gardinier secretary-general for ChildFund Alliance; Sonia Alvarenga, youth ambassador from Honduras; Hector Villalta, a youth ambassador from Nicaragua; Susan Handrigan from Canada World Youth; and Susan Ormiston, CBC senior correspondent and panel moderator) As I listened to each I was struck again that while PICMCA exceeded many of its targets, and real positive change occurred, much more needs to be done to further improve the well-being of children and youth in Central America and Mexico (Get the full panel discussion update, or watch it, here.).

IDW panel during virtual event

Irregular immigration: what it means and why it’s happening

It’s staggering to see how much forced migration has increased since 2014 and continues to trend upwards. Every year we see news stories of thousands upon thousands of unaccompanied children and youth from Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border hoping to cross over for a better life.

What motivates children and youth to leave home? The answer we heard again and again is the natural human desire to escape violence and crushing poverty and to pursue work and/or be reunited with family who already left home in search of better opportunities.

There is a widely accepted perception that migration leads to a better life. This perception is fuelled by stories of children and youth who made the journey. The role of such stories in persuading young people to go, I have come to see, is significant. As discussed on the panel, what children and youth don’t know when they leave home is the migration journey is fraught with many terrible dangers, especially for girls. Some never make it. What can be done?

Our PICMCA project supported children and youth to find opportunities at home

PICMCA more than demonstrated to me that promising solutions are at hand. The smart combination of strengthening child-protection services, increasing youth employability and youth participation and leadership works. At the beginning of the project, the percentage of children and youth in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico who reported their lives would be better if they migrated was 59 percent. At the end of the project that percentage dropped to 44.

How PICMCA continues to help children and youth thrive at home

In preparation for the panel discussion, I met virtually with local partners, community leaders and youth in Nicaragua to hear from them the positive impact of PICMCA and glean key lessons to inform the way forward. I was struck by what I heard.

When given reliable information by people they trust, youth can make a different choice. Through various platforms the PICMCA program provided young people with accurate information on the risks of irregular migration so they could make an informed decision on whether to leave.

The young people I spoke with told me how the program educated them and how they shared what they learned with their friends, inspiring them to think differently. Then those friends shared with their friends.

Youth learned the risks of irregular migration and conversely how they could make a better life for themselves within their communities. They shared ideas with each other and lessons learned about how to start and grow a business. Those whose businesses were starting to thrive were already hiring others.

Youth listen to their friends, and I could see how young people empowered with accurate information on the risks of irregular migration and opportunities to stay could make different life choices. The level of influence of their friends was significant enough that they were prepared to use their personal savings, which they had accumulated to migrate, to start their own businesses.

What’s our hope for reducing irregular migration in the future?

What gives me hope that promising solutions are at hand in addressing the issue of irregular child and youth migration, is that young people actively participate in youth networks, which have continued beyond the project’s end. This assures the message on the risks of irregular migration and the opportunities to make alternative choices will continue to spread, and spread far, especially through technology.

Listening to Sonia and Hector tell their stories on the panel, and reflecting on the stories of the other young project participants I spoke with, motivates me as CEO of Children Believe to do what I can to build on the success of PICMCA so more children and youth in Central America and Mexico can live and dream fearlessly.

I’ll keep that promise — and the one I made to visit a thriving smoothie stand business started by one of the many young people who give us hope change is possible.

Learn more about our work in irregular migration.

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Children Believe works globally to empower children to dream fearlessly, stand up for what they believe in — and be heard. For 60+ years, we’ve brought together brave young dreamers, caring supporters and partners, and unabashed idealists. Together, we’re driven by a common belief: creating access to education — inside and outside of classrooms — is the most powerful tool children can use to change their world.

Preventing Irregular Child Migration in Central America (PICMCA):

Children Believe is leading a $15.2-million regional project in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua, designed to improve the well-being of children and youth who are at risk of irregular migration. The Government of Canada is contributing $12.6 million to the four-year project. The initiative addresses a number of the root causes that fuel irregular migration — from high levels of crime and violence, limited employment and educational opportunities, to social exclusion and a lack of information on the inherent dangers of migrating without following the normal immigration procedures. For this project, Children Believe is partnering with two non-governmental organizations: ChildFund International-USA and Educo.

About ChildFund Alliance:

A member of ChildFund Alliance, Children Believe is part of a global network of child-focused development organizations working to create opportunities for children and youth, their families and communities. ChildFund helps nearly 23-million children and their families in 70 countries overcome poverty and underlying conditions that prevent children from achieving their full potential. We work to end violence against children; provide expertise in emergencies and disasters to ease the harmful impact on children and their communities; and engage children and youth to create lasting change and elevate their voices in decisions that affect their lives.

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