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Human Trafficking Center

Trading Violence for Exploitation: Challenges for Unaccompanied Minors


Apr 2017



By Emily Gwash, Guest Blogger*

The growing humanitarian crisis caused by millions of people fleeing violence and devastation in Syria has captured the world’s attention. A whole host of accompanying issues and dilemmas concerning the plight of these refugees have been identified, garnering further consideration from the global community. In particular, a large number of those fleeing the region have become the victims of human trafficking, as they find themselves in increasingly desperate situations. Even more disheartening is the fact that many of these people are unaccompanied children just trying to make it on their own. However, unaccompanied children being targeted for human trafficking purposes is a global problem, and a similar situation percolates just south of the United States border. 

Central American Unaccompanied Minors  

For several years now (and most notably in 2014), individuals, families, and unaccompanied children have been fleeing Central America and Northern Triangle gang violence, and its associated economic effects. In this process, a large portion of minors traveling alone have become the victims of human trafficking. Like Syrian children, Central American children often lack the money and resources to move quickly out of danger, and are left desperate and with few options.

This migration crisis is regularly conflated with overarching immigration issues between the U.S. and Mexico. However, it is important to remember that a large number of children and adults seeking to enter the U.S. are not beginning their journey in Mexico. According to an article published in the New York Times in November of 2016, 91% of the 77,700 migrants caught trying to cross the United States’ southern border during the 2016 fiscal year were from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Limited Options

While many Central American children leave their homes in hope of reaching the United States, few are able to complete this journey. Instead, thousands find themselves stuck in Mexico, where the government has been consistently unwilling to provide support or asylum, and many are sent back to their country of origin where they face gang recruitment, retaliation, violence and economic instability. For those who do manage to reach U.S. soil (as many as 60,000 this fiscal year) most are briefly detained before being sent back across the border to Mexico. These factors, when combined with the realization that they may never make it to the U.S. in the manner that they had imagined, create conditions of extreme vulnerability and desperation, which have proven to be ripe for exploitation.

As forward migration stagnates in Mexico, victims are either forced into the hands of traffickers, or they seek out opportunities that mutate into situations of trafficking. In all cases however, the perpetrators are finding effective ways to exploit those who are fleeing for their lives. With significant demand for labor and sex trafficking in the United States, the influx of vulnerable people provides coyotes, gang members, and criminals with a larger pool from which to pull victims. In some instances, they have been able to exert very little effort to target these individuals.

A telling example of this targeted exploitation was recently uncovered. In 2014, it was discovered that U.S. authorities did not conduct the proper background checks on “caregivers” who took custody of dozens of Central American minors. The “caregivers” were instead traffickers who sent the children to work on farms in Ohio, where they were told they must repay a $15,000 debt to their employer before they could leave. This is only one example of many similar instances of traffickers gaining easy access to victims. According to UNICEF, in many cases, migrant children are kidnapped, whether traveling alone or with their families, and young girls are forced to work in brothels throughout Mexico, while boys are targeted for labor trafficking.

Moving Action Forward

In both the Central American and Syrian cases, the young victims face similar circumstances. Not only are they incredibly vulnerable to exploitation, but they lack opportunities, resources, and the legal status that comes with asylum. With the inability to return home, these factors have an incapacitating impact on their futures. Nevertheless, while the parallels in these two cases provide an interesting frame with which to understand the plight of unaccompanied minors, it can also be used to motivate action that encourages both the U.S. and Mexican governments to act. The plight of these children cannot be ignored or folded in to broader issues any longer, and awareness may be the first step.


*Emily P. Gwash is a Master of Public and International Affairs Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.  This blog is the second of a collaborative series with the University of Pittsburgh resulting from a course on human trafficking taught by Professor Luke N. Condra.

Photo by Amanda Tipton via flickr


(The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC)

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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