Nearly 80 Percent of Surveyed Children Fleeing to U.S. Say They Survived Physical Violence In Their Home Countries, Study Finds

A new report shines a light on the physical and psychological trauma that many Central American children arriving at the U.S. border from Northern Triangle countries have fled–and could once again face if they are forced to return.

In an analysis of more than 180 physical and psychological evaluations of children seeking asylum in the United States, of which 89 percent were from Northern Triangle countries El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) found that nearly 80 percent reported having "survived direct physical violence."

Of the dozens of children surveyed, 78 percent said they had endured direct physical violence in their home countries, while 18 percent said they had survived sexual violence and 71 percent said they had been subjected to "threats of violence or death."

In most cases, the violence children were subjected to was "gang-related," with 60 percent saying the abuse and threats they faced came from gangs, while 47 percent said they faced violence from family members.

Clinicians with PHR not only took children's oral accounts of their experiences, but they also documented "negative physical aftereffects" of abuse, "from musculoskeletal, pelvic and dermatologic trauma to severe head injuries."

In addition to reporting experiences of "extreme violence and sexual abuse at the hands of gang, family members and even law enforcement in their home countries," PHR said children also reported "being forced to join gangs or be murdered, told to kill their families if they did not want to be killed by gang members, or forced to endure sexual assault at the hands of gang members or their own family members."

In one case, an adolescent woman described being "beaten all over her body, including her head, being dragged through the woods, being tied to her friends, blindfolded and raped by multiple people."

"With states' consistent failure to protect children, investigate crimes, or prosecute or punish perpetrators, and the existence of both gang intimidation of police as well as gang infiltration into the police, the children expressed fear and lack of trust in local authorities," PHR said in a summary of its report.

Meanwhile, clinicians reported that 76 percent of children were either suspected to have or diagnosed with at least one major mental health issue, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being the most common.

At least 64 percent of children had been diagnosed with PTSD or were believed to have it, while 40 percent were believed to have major depressive disorder and 19 percent showed signs of or were diagnosed with anxiety disorder.

The children surveyed said that not only did they face abuse and threats in their home countries, but they also believed that "government authorities in their home countries did not effectively prevent, investigate, prosecute or punish crimes against children."

In a statement, PHR Network Program Officer Kathryn Hampton warned that children fleeing violence are now facing additional trauma at the U.S.-Mexico border, where immigration authorities have seen a surge in the number of children arriving in family groups from Central American countries.

Criticizing how the Trump administration has handled the surge in Central American families at the border, Hampton warned that: "Children are being met at the U.S. border with harsh, punitive policies that both violate their rights and severely affect their wellbeing."

"U.S. immigration officials have justified such policies in the name of deterrence. However, if violence is a major factor driving children to seek refuge in the United States—as demonstrated by the people PHR's clinicians evaluated, and whose cases were utilized for this study – harsh border enforcement will not serve as an effective deterrent and will only cause more harm to an already traumatized population," she said.

In a statement provided by PHR, Dr. Joseph Shin, who serves as co-medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights, said being granted asylum in the U.S. can be a lifeline for migrant children escaping violence in their home countries.

"Despite the extreme trauma these children have experienced, and the resulting developmental, psychological, and physical harm, many demonstrated remarkable resilience and significant physical and psychological improvement once they were safe from physical harm and had the opportunity to begin rebuilding their lives in the United States," Shin said.

The headline on this story was updated to clarify that 80 percent of surveyed children say they survived physical abuse in their home countries.

Child, Mexico, U.S.-Mexico border
A child on the Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border, touches hands with a person on the U.S. side through the border fence, during a prayer with priests and bishops from both countries for the migrants on February 26. Getty/HERIKA MARTINEZ