Víctor is 12 years old. A month ago, he arrived with his parents and older brother at a shelter in Chihuahua after a long journey from Tegucigalpa, his hometown, with the United States as his goal. His mother was a social worker in a hospital; her father, a sales representative; and her brother was studying nursing. However, since the latter received death threats and his father was the victim of an assault, Víctor and his family decided to abandon their life in Honduras in search of a safer environment.
Víctor is a fictitious name so as not to reveal the identity of this child, one of the 39,076 children and adolescents in a situation of migration who, at least, were travelling in Mexico in 2021, according to data registered by the Ministry of the Interior ( SEGOB). The real figure is probably much higher.
Extreme poverty, lack of job opportunities and violence are the primary causes of migration and forced displacement in the Northern Triangle region of Central America. To this has been added the increase in food insecurity, in a context of limited social protection, the depletion of natural resources and the environmental deterioration caused by climate change.
In recent years, a diversification of the countries that send migrants to Mexico has added more pressure to the complexity of migration management in this country. In 2021, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) registered 131,448 refugee application procedures, 300% more than those received in 2020 (41,230 applications).
Faced with situations of extreme insecurity, many families decide to undertake a long migratory journey with minors and even authorize the migration of children and adolescents alone.
The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations (UNDESA), estimated at 40.9 million the number of children under 19 years of age who live in a country other than the one in which they were born, increased from 29 million in 1990 to 40.9 million in 2020. In 2020, migrant children represented 14.6 per cent of the total migrant population and 1.6 per cent of all children and adolescents in the world.
According to UNICEF, the migratory routes of minors through Mexico can take several months to travel to the northern border, exposing them to situations of violence and vulnerability. In some cases, families or minors end up settling in Mexican cities for longer, waiting for the right moment to cross the border.
The importance of education
Víctor, like many of the other 30 children who live with him, has barely left the shelter since he has been in Chihuahua. He has not been to school either.
His mother, Ana (fictitious name to protect her identity), tried to enrol him without success: “The school is down here. I already went, because my son should have started high school on Monday: “It costs 1,200 Mexican pesos of cooperation fee” [the centre’s administration representative] told me. “Because it’s cooperative,” he told me. And the supplies, and the uniform, and the shoes? From where do I get the money if I only work in the kitchen of the shelter? I cannot afford this.”
Migrant minors are in a situation of high vulnerability. One of the first rights that they see violated is their right to education, a lack that is reflected in their well-being and that acts as a transmission chain for inequality.
According to UNESCO, the education of girls, boys and adolescents is an inalienable right that improves their resilience and fosters beneficial attitudes for the development of their life projects. In addition, it favours a feeling of community belonging, necessary to create emotional bonds with their environment and grow.
And above all, at school, they find protection, knowledge and tools that are essential both for their present life and to expand their opportunities in the future.
Educational guarantees in Mexico
Mexico has several legal figures that protect and guarantee the educational inclusion of children and adolescents in a situation of migration. The General Education Law establishes that education in Mexico is free and universal, regardless of the payment of fees or the retention of documents. The General Law on the Rights of Children and Adolescents establishes the obligation to “ensure that they attend compulsory education, participate in their educational process and provide them with the conditions for their continuity and permanence in the educational system.” In addition, Mexico adheres to various international treaties that provide for educational inclusion as a right, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
However, there is still a lack of knowledge among the staff of the educational centres and other figures from the offer regarding the application of the regulations, and it is not strange that enrollment applications are rejected for not having identity documents or not being able to pay fees that are inaccessible for people in transit.
Added to this, discriminatory attitudes among the host population reproduce myths and stereotypes about migrant children.
On the side of the migrants themselves, the conditions of insecurity and the priority of completing the migratory journey sometimes relegate the school attendance of their sons and daughters to the background.
A UNHCR study has also warned that government actions at the federal and state levels to guarantee education for all boys and girls are still not sufficient and adapted to demand and that civil society interventions are often unrelated to the national educational system.
Jose Luis Canchola, interviewed in 2021 as the Municipal Director of Attention to Migrants in Tijuana, Baja California, stated that “there are many gaps and a tremendous delay in dealing with these cases [of educational inclusion]. Tijuana has a migration history of half a century or more. Now there is a gravity spike, but it is cyclical. Then there are quiet periods and then something happens and more migration comes. But there should be a homogeneous general policy, of the three levels of government because we are talking about children and adolescents, and, in this sense, education is essential for them to get ahead.
Move towards inclusion
It is difficult to know with certainty how many children and adolescents like Víctor do not go to school because they are migrating. However, the consequences of educational exclusion are critical and require urgent action.
Paola Gómez, Education Officer of UNICEF Mexico, highlights the need to recognize that education is an essential right and is not subordinated to other ones, such as protection, food and health. The officer points out that human rights are interconnected: “Education for us at UNICEF saves lives, (…) makes the migratory journey safer, supports prevention (…) in the COVID contingency as well as the re-establishment of routines and psycho-emotional support. For these children and adolescents, having access to education can save their lives.”
UNICEF carries out extensive work with federal authorities, the Ministry of Public Education, as well as with external actors to improve the educational inclusion of children and adolescents in a situation of migration. With the support of the Mexico-Germany Joint Fund, it develops activities in Ciudad Juárez, Baja California, Chiapas and Puebla, which will culminate in a strategy at the regional level, the federal level and in these states. Its objective is to advance in terms of information and protocols for access to schools, as well as generate evidence of how the accompaniment to access the school allows improving the lives of children and adolescents in this situation.
Achieving such an objective involves improving the awareness of various sectors of society about the problem, fostering a change in attitudes and behaviours aligned with the urgency of the situation, and generating adapted and coordinated institutional responses at various levels. This is a long road to solving the urgent challenges faced by more than 40,000 children in Mexico today, but where UNICEF implements unprecedented efforts.
Ana speaks with pain about the stress and sadness that her children live in the shelter, especially Víctor. She cannot understand why his son cannot go to school, which would help him, she says, to find motivation and continue learning in key years of his life: “Children are the future of Mexico. If children are not well, obviously we as a society are not well. The children want to study, the children want to return to their lives as normal as possible, even if it’s difficult because they are not at home. But they are willing to do it. Do you understand me?”
*The interviews and graphic materials cited in this article have been carried out within the framework of the Consulting project for the design and implementation of 3 Communication strategies for development on the topics of 1) Water, sanitation and hygiene in schools and menstrual hygiene, 2) Educational inclusion of NNA in a situation of migration, 3) Preschool education, implemented by GlobalCAD for UNICEF Mexico.
 Bayas, 2021: “Mapping of the institutional capacities of public schools and opportunities for their strengthening in the host communities of southern Mexico”.