Why Salvadoran children are emigrating in 2014

My interviews with Salvadoran children attempting to emigrate to Belize (1), Mexico (3) or the United States (319) are consistent with recent reports and articles in that most children described more than one reason for their emigration. Forty-one girls (38.7%) and 77 boys (35.5%) listed two reasons. Fifteen girls (14.1%) and 36 boys (16.6%) gave three reasons, and three boys (1.4%) gave four reasons. Forty-eight girls (45.3%) and 96 boys (44.2%) mentioned only one reason.

The largest number (196 or 60.1%) are leaving because of crime, gang threats, insecurity or violence. Sixty-six girls (62.3%) left for these reasons. Many were recently asked to be a gang member’s girlfriend, and a few had been raped as threats escalated. Several were being threatened with death if they did not join the gang present in their neighborhood or school. Seven more had family members who were threatened by gangs. Nineteen feared what could happen to them if they stayed, although they acknowledged nothing has happened yet. 130 boys (59.9%) fled for the same reasons. Most were being threatened with death if they did not join the gang present in their neighborhood or school, and some had been physically assaulted as these threats escalated. Ten had family members who were threatened by gangs. Forty-six feared what could happen, although they acknowledged nothing has happened yet.

Somewhat surprisingly, a larger percentage of girls than boys flee for these reasons. In the future, I will analyze data by department (and cities within departments), family abroad and homicide rates. Whereas males more frequently mentioned being murdered as the worst possible outcome, females more frequently mentioned disappearance or rape as the worst possible outcomes. Homicides are fairly well documented by the press here, but disappearances — for obvious reasons — are not well evidenced.

The next largest number (113 or 35%) wanted to reunify with a family member. As you may remember from an earlier post, over 90% have a family member in their desired destination, so it is notable that so few explicitly referenced reunification as a goal. Forty-nine girls (46.2%) and 64 boys (29.5%) wanted to reunify, usually with their mom, dad, or mom and dad. Thus, why more girls than boys mentioned it also deserves exploration. In the future, I will examine the age, origin, destination, and other reasons for migrating to shed further light.

The third largest group (102 or 31.6%) wanted to study. Thirty-one girls (29.2%) and 71 boys (32.7%) mentioned this. Of the major causes, it was the least likely to be cited alone. I am especially surprised that fewer girls mentioned this goal than boys, because most boys cannot articulate a desired career, whereas most girls can when we talk.

The fourth largest group (88 or 27.2%) wanted to work. Thirteen girls (12.3%) and 75 boys (34.6%) hoped to find a job and remit money to their family in El Salvador. As could be expected, more males than females had this goal, and all who mentioned this were 15 years of age or older. Unexpectedly, most who wanted to work believed they could study half the day and work the other half, since here the school day is between two and four hours. Among young children traveling with adults, they mentioned poverty. A larger percentage of girls (6.6%) than boys (3.7%) mentioned this in interviews. Departmental analysis and family context will yield further insights.

The fifth largest groups named abuse (10 or 3.1%) or adventure (10 or 3.1%). Five girls (4.7%) and five boys (2.3%) were past or current victims of various forms of abuse. Unfortunately, these numbers are likely underreported. I rarely get to conduct interviews alone with children, and the likelihood that they would disclose abuse in front of their abuser or someone complicit in their abuse is low. Recent reports have indicated that 10-20% of unaccompanied child migrants leave the home because of domestic or interfamilial violence. One girl (0.9%) and nine boys (4.1%) said they wanted to migrate in order to see other parts of the world.

While a few other isolated causes were mentioned once or twice (find a wife, explore sexuality, medical care, buy a house, flee an impending volcano eruption), a group of four were returning to their lives. One female (0.9%) had resided in Mexico with her family for years and was headed back there. Four males (1.4%) had lived in different parts of the US for five or more years. For all four, they had tried to reside in El Salvador and experienced a number of difficulties, which pushed them to emigrate again.

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