“My grandmother wanted me to leave.
She told me: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you.
If you do join, the rival gang will shoot you—or the cops will shoot you.
But if you leave, no one will shoot you’.”
– *Kevin, Honduras, aged 17
Kevin’s grandma, like all grandmothers, was sharing her wisdom – whispering fairytales before bed, revealing secret family recipes, giving advice. But for 17-year-old Kevin in Honduras, his grandmother’s advice was a matter of life or death: advice no child should ever have to receive.
Constant threat of violence is a daily reality in the North of Central America (NCA), a region composed of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that has been called the most violent place in the world not at war. Highly-organized armed gangs control scores of villages, exploiting weak post-civil war governments and engaging in drug and human trafficking. Those who defy the gangs are killed or disappeared and their families threatened. Adolescent boys, like Kevin, are forcibly recruited, while women and children barricade themselves in their homes, unable to go to work or school for fear of gunfights. The threat of sexual violence, as an act of intimidation or retaliation for refusing to join gangs or pay extortion taxes, hangs over countless women and girls.
Even as hundreds of thousands are forced to flee their homes, the NCA remains one of the world’s least visible refugee crises. In 2016, more than 164,000 NCA residents fled to neighboring countries such as Mexico, the U.S., or even Canada. An incredible number of children like Kevin are making the journey on their own – 66,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the U.S. in 2014. Those fleeing through neighbouring countries are also at risk of extortion, sexual abuse and trafficking. The situation is escalating: between January and March of this year alone, 190,000 refugees and asylum seekers fled the NCA – that’s a ten-fold increase over the last five years.
To protect those fleeing the NCA, UNHCR is opening shelters to host unaccompanied children and rape survivors, putting children back in schools, and providing families with cash assistance. You can also help children like Kevin by donating – to date, we have received less than 20% of the money required to help women and children in the NCA. Let’s ensure that one day Kevin will be able to tell his grandkids a completely different story than the one his grandma was telling him.
To learn more about the NCA, read our Children on the Run report and the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework for Central America and Mexico outlining what UNHCR is asking Canada to do to address the crisis.
*All names have been changed for protection reasons.