The dangerous odysseys of the children who seek the “Gates of Paradise”

Las puertas del paraíso – Antonio Hernández
By Diana Pastor and Antonio Hernández

Something has gone very wrong in a country whose children flee in search of a better life.

In his book The Gates of Paradise, Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewsk narrates the journey of a group of European children, who, after one is struck by a divine revelation, embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In this sense, says José María Guelbenzu: “The subject of The Gates of Paradise is identical to that of The Children’s Crusade by Marcel Schwob: the perilous journey of children en route to Jerusalem, filled with the spirit of the Crusade, ended in illness, kidnapping, slavery and death before arriving even at the ports of the Mediterranean.” Eight hundred years later, this is the situation of thousands of Guatemalan minors who migrate to the United States. Many boys and girls, motivated by the promise of a better life, risk danger and violence en route to the U.S., and upon arrival there.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2016 approximately 81 Guatemalan minors were detained by the US Border Patrol every day, about one every seventeen minutes. In recent years, Guatemala has experienced an alarming increase in the number of children who migrate to the United States. Guatemala’s National Counsel for Guatemalan Migrants reports that eight out of ten Central American minors who migrate are under twelve years of age and two out of three travel alone; many of these children are Guatemalan. Some of the children covered by this study have decided for themselves to cross the Guatemalan border and the length of Mexico to reach that North American country. Others are convinced by their parents who have already reached the United States as immigrants.

What kinds of events or situations drive a child to consider migration, who, in normal circumstances would be more preoccupied with school or friends? According to a study by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, the main factors leading to child and adolescent migration from Guatemala include human rights violations in the context of extreme poverty; ethnic, gender, and other discrimination; violence or the threat of violence; and the hope of reunion with one’s family. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of children and adolescents who migrate from Guatemala are indigenous and intend to leave the country forever, though their journeys north are often cut short.

According to the same report, the relationship between high rates of violence and the increase in migration by Guatemalan children and adolescents is evidenced by the fact that the most violent departments in the country are also the ones with the highest levels of migration. (Those departments include Guatemala, San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango and Jutiapa). The children who experience violence suffer it in their own homes, and the violence they experience is often not just physical but also sexual in nature and perpetrated by family members. Between 2003 and 2012, inter-family violence rose by more than 50%, the majority of the victims being women and girls. Gang violence and violence associated with organized crime has also risen and disproportionately affects Guatemalan youth, so it’s not surprising that children and adolescents flee to escape not only domestic violence but also the pressure to join violent organizations.

Two children look for work as shoe-shiners in Xela. Photo by Antonio Hernández.

Parents understand migration to be a natural choice, considering that the living conditions in their places of origin are even more hazardous and bleak than the prospect of migrating to the United States without documentation. Although parents may understand the implications of the trip north, minors do not have a complete view of these risks and see migration primarily as the real possibility for an improved quality of life. Still, the dangers that young migrants face range from armed robbery to human trafficking, coercive labor and slavery, sexual exploitation and organ trafficking. Migrants also risk death by asphyxiation when traveling in inadequate forms of transportation, like in overloaded trucks without ventilation, and while crossing rivers and deserts. Many others are left physically mutilated when traveling on cargo trains.

Those who are deported, on the other hand, live a different ordeal: being repatriated by the Secretary of Social Welfare (SBS) and the Attorney General’s Office (PGN), they return to their homes to only be exposed again to the conditions from which they fled in the first place. Others stay in shelters and orphanages unequipped for the influx of so many children.

Even in light of the situation, there are no clear steps the Guatemalan government can take to confront this reality. The response by the United States has come in the form of the Alliance for Prosperity Plan in the Northern Triangle, which covers Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The Alliance for Prosperity, however, has been critiqued by various organizations, including the the online publication Plaza Pública, which called the US approach to immigration a “project of the elite” and suggested that rather than attempting to solve the problem of migration, the Plan “in essence is nothing more than a business plan whose ultimate objective is to encourage and consolidate private investments friendly to the United States.”

After children are repatriated, the cycle of poverty and neglect will continue. Despite this fact, thousands of boys and girls keep trying to cross the border. The logic of the situation, for them, is simple: Guatemala failed them, paradise lies in the United States, and they are willing to hop the gates to get there.

Diana Pastor is the EntreMundos Magazine Editor.

Antonio Hernández has worked for several years with youth and children coordinating with different NGOs. One of his big dreams is to build a better home for new generations.

A boy cleans a windshield in Xela. Photo by Antonio Hernández.