Returnees perceived to have the virus have been the target of violence and discrimination, while their reintegration is fraught with “major protection risks”, the agency reported on Thursday.
“For children on the move across the region, COVID-19 is making a bad situation even worse. Discrimination and attacks are now added to existing threats like gang violence that drove these children to leave in the first place”, said UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore.
“This means many returned children are now doubly at risk and in even greater peril than when they left their communities. It is never in a child’s best interest to be sent back to an unsafe situation.”
COVID-19 fear and confusion
Since March, the US authorities have returned at least 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, despite serious protection risks in their communities of origin.
Nearly 460 migrant children were also returned from Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras during this same period.
UNICEF said limited public information about COVID-19 testing, treatment and containment is sowing confusion and fear in the region. Some communities fear that returned families and children could be carrying the virus, prompting further stigmatization of migrants.
The UN agency has received reports of communities in Guatemala and Honduras barring entry to outsiders and strangers, including returnees, in efforts to prevent virus transmission. Some migrants have also been threatened with violence, while migrant reception and transit centres have been attacked.
The situation is further compounded by movement restrictions and lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) for staff working on child protection.
Support for governments and returnees
UNICEF urges all governments to halt pushbacks and deportations of unaccompanied or separated minors, as well as children with their families, without prior adequate protection and health screenings.
Authorities are also being called on to uphold children’s right to seek asylum and reunite with their families, and to ensure equal access to COVID-19 testing and treatment.
UNICEF is also working with governments across the region to shore up protection in numerous ways.
The agency is supporting Guatemala with providing accommodation and services for returned children, some of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 while in quarantine or isolation. These children are also receiving health care and other assistance, including with family tracing.
UNICEF is also ramping up efforts to protect migrant and returned children in El Salvador and Honduras, in addition to providing PPE for people working with them.
Meanwhile, authorities at Mexico’s northern and southern borders, are receiving assistance in implementing protection screenings. UNICEF also is working in shelters, providing psychosocial activities, hygiene kits and information.