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At Our Doorstep: Healthcare as a Human Right for Latin American Children

In 2014, as many as 90,000 children from Central America are expected to attempt to cross the border into the US – more than double from last year. Many are without their families, without prospects or plans for the future. They have only hope.

This sharp increase in migration (primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) is due to a dramatic rise in gang violence and drug related crime. US policies throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s to reduce such crimes in the US, deported thousands of members back to Central America, where weak and corrupt states allow them to become more powerful. What’s more, the US-led “War on Drugs,” which focused on breaking up large cartels primarily in Colombia, created a void in the drug market readily filled by smaller cartels in Central America. This created an unprecedented surge in violence as they vie for dominance of the drug trade.

The Honduran government is particularly vulnerable to such violence. After the 2009 coup toppled its democratically-elected president and installed the Porfirio Lobo administration, the state’s democratic institutions and security apparatuses crumbled. Despite Lobo’s usurpation of power and continued state repression, the Obama administration recognized his victory in a fraudulent election that took place months after the coup. Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world and an estimated 40,000 gang members.

El Salvador and Guatemala are not far behind. Children are especially vulnerable, often forced to enter the drug trade under threats of violence against themselves and their families. Many must choose between certain and intolerable violence at home, or the treacherous journey to the US.

The American reaction to the rise in immigration has created an additional obstacle for the young immigrants. In July, in Murrieta, California, dozens of Americans rallied in the streets, some bearing signs with slogans such as “Return to Sender.”

In contrast to those concerned about the burden that these children might impose on taxpayers, many in the global community, including the United Nations, maintain that this issue is not just a marked increase in migration, but a full-fledged refugee crisis, with all its attendant misery. Recognizing this as a refugee crisis would put more pressure on the United States to increase the number of Central Americans allowed into the country. The Obama administration is currently considering a proposal to grant hundreds of Hondurans refugee status.

One organization advocating for these young refugees is MADRE’s ally, Circle of Health International. Founded by midwife and social activist Sera Bonds, COHI aids refugees around the world. COHI has partnered with MADRE in bringing reproductive health care services to Syrian refugees in Jordan, as well as in Midwives for Peace, a coalition of Palestinian and Israeli women who provide reproductive health care to mothers in the West Bank. Other COHI projects include providing education on maternal health and child care in Tanzania, and providing care to pregnant women in Haiti.

COHI is now launching an initiative in McAllen, Texas to provide much-needed health services to the thousands of refugees arriving at the border town. The organization is planning to open a re-purposed abortion clinic in McAllen that will provide comprehensive services to Latin American children and families.

In early July, COHI performed a health assessment that confirmed the severity of the local health crisis. Most of the refugees arrive suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, poor hygiene, and psychological trauma. Like most cities along the border, McAllen is in great need of healthcare facilities, supplies, and professionals, as the city’s resources are unable to accommodate the spike in immigration.

COHI aims to meet these critical needs of Central American children. They are working to provide clinical and reproductive care, and to serve as a coordinator of the well-meaning but often disorganized volunteer efforts that are already taking place. “While the generous people and faith communities of McAllen have opened their hearts and checkbooks to care for the refugees, there is a great need for direct, clinical pediatric and adolescent health care,” explains Sera. This requires cooperation of local, national, and global actors with COHI’s efforts.

We congratulate our friends at COHI for launching this initiative to address an urgent human rights crisis right at our doorstep.