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People are often surprised when I tell them I advocate on behalf of unaccompanied youth, many of them as young as 11 or 12, coming to the United States alone. “What do you mean alone, they must be with someone” people often reply. But I really do mean alone. I mean youth who leave their homes, and on their own find smugglers or other migrants to help them find their way North. They board buses, ride on top of trains or hide in the back of trucks alone, with no one protecting them. They are vulnerable to unimaginable dangers from smugglers, drug cartels, traffickers and even other migrants. Yet, to these youth, the dangers they face in their home country are worse than the dangers they face on their journey, so they risk their lives to reach a place of safety.
For many Americans it is almost impossible to imagine such young people on their own, but it is happening every day. Worldwide, youth make up a significant share of all migrants. In 2010, there were an estimated 27 million international young migrants. In the past year alone, approximately 23,000 unaccompanied children and youth were apprehended trying to enter the United States. The majority were escaping violence in their home countries in Central America.
As part of my job at the Women’s Refugee Commission’s migrant rights and justice program, I regularly speak with these young people about their reasons for migrating, the kinds of dangers they faced during their journey and what they hoped to find here in the United States. My job is to listen to their stories and advocate for laws, policies and procedures that will enhance their well-being, both during the journey and once they arrive in the United States.
The stories they share are heartbreaking. The dangers they have faced and obstacles they have overcome are hard to believe. Some tell me how they have watched loved ones die at the hands of ruthless cartels. Others talk about how it felt to be sent away at a very young age by their families who can no longer care for them. Others talk about trying to reunite with parents they haven’t seen since they were toddlers.
Their stories, their concerns and their needs are remarkably similar to those of unaccompanied youth all over the world who are leaving their homes in search of safety, family members and a future. Young Eritreans walk through the deserts of Sudan looking for a better life. Youth fleeing conflict in Sudan, Iraq and Somalia and elsewhere struggle to make a living in Cairo.
These youth migrate because they are filled with hope--hope for a better life. If they are given the resources and opportunities they need, they can make valuable contributions to their new home country. But it is important that their reasons for migrating and their needs in their adoptive country are considered both in international and domestic policies.
The United Nations has designated August 12 as International Youth Day, and this year’s theme is migrant youth. My colleagues at the Women's Refugee Commission and I urge UN organizations and member states to recommit to this vulnerable population and redouble their efforts to ensure youth are able to find safe, permanent homes where they can flourish and raise our future generations.
Jennifer Podkul is senior program officer, migrant rights & justice program, Women's Refugee Commission.