By Trudi Mitchell, Deputy National Director, Australia for UNHCR.

The idea of any child having to flee their country alone, without their parents to guide and reassure them, is shocking. But at this moment there are tens of thousands of children fleeing violent gangs in northern Central America.

I recently travelled to Guatemala and Mexico to meet some of these children and see how the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was responding to this crisis. This has been a major focus for Australia for UNHCR this year, and Australian donors have offered generous support.

In Guatemala I met 17-year-old Jonathon, from Honduras, who fled after gang members shot his friend and told him he would be next.

He crossed the border into Guatemala, not knowing what to expect or what would happen to him. But at a UNHCR-supported shelter in Peten, in the north of the country, the uncertainty and fear ended.

Jonathon at Raices de Amor, a home for unaccompanied minors who have fled their countries. © Kate Geraghty/The Sydney Morning Herald

Young men clamber onto the cargo train known as 'La Bestia' (The Beast) in Tenosique, infamously known to carry refugees. © Kate Geraghty/The Sydney Morning Herald

This shelter was one in a network of migrant shelters through Guatemala. They give people a safe place to sleep for the night, food, showers, and access to medical care and legal advice – many people don’t even know they have the right to apply for asylum.

For children such as Jonathon - who simply don’t know there is anyone they can ask for help - these shelters are a chance for them to connect with UNHCR staff who can protect and assist them. UNHCR staff referred Jonathon to a specialised children’s shelter, Raíces de Amor, in Guatemala City.

With up to 24 children, mostly adolescents, living in dormitories in a large house with no backyard, life isn’t perfect there. But the young residents are safe and provided for.

They have access to healthcare, psychological support, education and other activities. They have a chance to rebuild their lives. Jonathon is now learning to be baker at a vocational training centre. He told me he would like to open his own business one day.

The number of people fleeing gang violence in Central America – mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – has grown by 16 times in six years. Criminal gangs, known as maras, forcibly recruit adolescents, and threaten to kill them if they refuse to cooperate. Girls from their early teens can be forced to become ‘girlfriends’ to gang members.

It was staggering to realise how much this crisis affects children.

I heard about one girl of 16 who fell pregnant to a gang member in a forced ‘relationship’. When he found out he threatened to kill both her and the baby, so she fled to Guatemala. With assistance from UNHCR she has been recognised as a refugee, and has been given the support she needs to return to school.

Another family I met had fled El Salvador after their 8-year-old son was threatened by way of revenge against the father who had refused to work as a driver for a gang. A gang member held a gun to the mother’s head and told her he had been ordered to shoot her and her son. While he eventually let them go that time, they knew they may not be so lucky a second time, so they left their home and their country in the middle of the night.

In Guatemala, UNHCR helped the family apply for asylum and supported the mother to establish her own small business.

Refugees from Honduras run across the border into Mexico from a secret track in hope of finding safety. © Kate Geraghty/The Sydney Morning Herald

Societal change takes time, and hopefully one day all the countries in this region will once again be safe places for children to grow up. But in the meantime, it was heartening to see the difference UNHCR was making, and meet the children and families who had a second chance because generous people on the other side of the world had donated money to change their life.

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