At Least 1,000 Unaccompanied Migrant Children Returned From U.S. to Mexico, Central America, Since March, UNICEF Says

Hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children have been forced to return from the U.S. to Mexico and northern Central America since early March, raising concerns for their safety, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has said.

According to the organization, at least 1,000 unaccompanied children have been returned to Mexico and El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which collectively make up the "Northern Triangle," amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to the U.S. deportations, Mexico has also overseen the returns of at least 447 migrant children to Guatemala and Honduras amid the pandemic, according to UNICEF.

The deportations have been overseen despite warnings from organization that unaccompanied children could face potential violence and stigmatization in their home countries due to fears that they could be carrying the virus from the U.S., which has the highest known death toll from confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world.

Noting that UNICEF had repeatedly warned of "acts of violence and discrimination" being perpetrated against "returnees perceived to have been infected with the disease," the organization has warned that deported children "face major protection risks during their reintegration."

Limited public information about coronavirus testing, treatment and containment protocols has led to confusion and fear among returnees and the communities they are being forced to re-enter, UNICEF has said.

In the months since the pandemic began, UNICEF has received reports of communities in Guatemala and Honduras physically barring outside individuals or groups, including returnees, from accessing their areas in hopes of preventing local transmission of coronavirus.

In some instances, returnees have been threatened with violence after trying to re-enter their communities, while migrant reception and transit hubs have faced threats and attacks, according to UNICEF.

"For children on the move across the region, COVID-19 is making a bad situation even worse," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement shared with Newsweek.

"Discrimination and attacks are now added to existing threats like gang violence that drove these children to leave in the first place," Fore said. "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."

In a statement sent to Newsweek, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said that 2,871 unaccompanied minors were apprehended and processed by the agency in March.

Another 315 "single minors," however, would have been removed immediately under new rules imposed by the Trump administration that were billed as helping limit the spread of coronavirus.

In April, just 166 children were apprehended and processed as unaccompanied minors. Meanwhile, 600 children were removed under the Trump administration's new rules.

Children play while their parents wave white flags as a signal they need to be delivered food (white), along a highway in Villa Nueva, 14 km south of Guatemala City, on April 30, 2020. Hanging white or red flags on the facade of their homes was a request for help for food and medicine is the final hope to which Guatemalans cling in difficult times without income from the quarantine implemented on March 15 by the authorities. JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty

UNICEF said it has been working to increase efforts to protect migrant and returned children in Central American countries, including efforts to support communities with prevention campaigns against the stigmatization of returnees.

The organization said it is further working to provide children with healthcare, psychosocial support and family tracing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement shared with Newsweek, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency spokesperson said the agency "takes very seriously its responsibility to care for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) while in our custody and until we are able to safely return them back to their country of origin."

"The process of returning UACs to their home country is a very deliberate, well-coordinated and orchestrated procedure," they said, adding: "We do our due diligence to turn all minors over in a safe and professional manner, taking unique care of each one, every step along the way.

"Repatriations are carried out according to agreements between the U.S. and foreign governments to ensure appropriate provisions are in place for the minor to be received," they said. "The returns are done so in close coordination with the consulates and local agencies, and the minors are turned over to their foreign government immediately upon arrival."

This article has been updated with a statement from ICE.