06/27/2014 02:01 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

Unaccompanied Minors are "Uniquely Vulnerable" to Trafficking

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According to the UNHCR, we can expect to see as many as 60,0000 unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. from Central America and Mexico this year. Most of these children are forcibly displaced by violence and abuse and nearly four out of every ten children are being recruited and exploited through human smuggling -- the unlawful facilitation of movement of persons into the United States.

The U.S. government recorded this unprecedented surge in unaccompanied minors (known as UACs) in 2011 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended over 4,000 from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In 2013, that number had reached nearly 22,000. Similarly, the number of UACs from Mexico has increased from 13,000 in 2011 to nearly 19,000 in 2013 (UNHCR).

Why are they coming? Jenny Yang, vice president of Policy and Advocacy at World Relief met yesterday with Vice President Joe Biden as well as other advocates to discuss the relationship between our current immigration system and this situation. "These children are desperately seeking to escape the extreme levels of violence and poverty in their home countries," said Yang. "Honduras, for example, has by far the highest murder rate in the world. El Salvador ranks fourth and Guatemala fifth."

In fact, nearly 60 percent of the UACs interviewed by the UNHCR said they were fleeing violence or abuse both in their communities and at home. Almost half of the children have been threatened with harm by armed criminal groups, many of which are gangs and drug cartels. Twenty-four percent of the girls interviewed had experienced sexual violence or threats of sexual violence including rape. All of these children present a potential or actual need for international protection and should be screened accordingly.

However, there is severe dissonance between the holistic needs of these children and our nation's response. The Center for Gender & Refugee Studies as well as Kids in Need of Defense said in a recent report that these children are often apprehended, placed in deportation proceedings and treated as adults beyond the protection of the law. They lack protection from deportation that is contrary to their "best interests," a principle that has historically guided child protection internationally and in the U.S. justice system.

Failure to consider the best interests of the child prior to repatriation has led to children being sent back to countries where they have no dedicated adult to care for them or where their well-being, and even their life, is otherwise in danger, resulting in violations of children's human rights. (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies & KIND)

The crisis also shows the inherent connection between our current immigration system and the prevalence of modern-day slavery. "Often immigration and trafficking are talked about as two separate issues," said Yang in a recent press conference. But perhaps no population is more vulnerable to the insidious, $32 billion dollar industry of forced labor and sex trafficking than these children, particularly during migration routes.

Immigrants have historically represented a disproportionate number of victims of labor and sex trafficking in the U.S. A recent report released by the Faith Alliance Against Slavery & Trafficking reveals that 95 percent of all labor trafficking victims in the U.S. are foreign-born and 80 percent are undocumented. Similarly, two out of 10 sex trafficking victims are non-citizens.

World Relief's Anti-Trafficking Specialist Amy Hewat said that many of the children entering the U.S. from Central America and Mexico have been abused or coerced by smugglers under the promise that they can receive lawful citizenship in the U.S. They may end up being sold into labor or sex trafficking. "Our broken immigration system creates an environment where traffickers can thrive," said Hewat.

Sherri Harris is a program director for Salvation Army's Network of Emergency Trafficking Services and works with hundreds of trafficking survivors in Southern California. She remarked that the majority of victims she and her colleagues encountered were also foreign-born, many of them undocumented. "If we want to address human trafficking, we have to look at how it intersects with immigration," she said.

So what can be done? In her meeting with Vice President Biden, Yang recommended a multi-faceted approach that includes the best interest of the child in decision-making, inter-agency collaboration and an investment of resources in effectively addressing root causes of migration from Central America and Mexico.

Still, Yang said what we need most is for Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform. "A clear immigration process would quickly dispel any misinformation about current or future immigration policy that might further encourage children to [unlawfully enter] the United States," said Yang.

Emily Roenigk lives in Baltimore, MD where she works in social and digital communications for World Relief. She is passionate about telling stories in a way that empowers and honors the vulnerable.