UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Ishmael Beah travelled to Tijuana and Mexico City last week to meet with internally displaced children and families fleeing armed violence.

During his visit to Tijuana in northern Mexico, Beah – a bestselling author and human rights activist who was forcibly recruited into an armed group during the brutal civil war in his home country of Sierra Leone at the age of 13 – spoke to Mexican children, teenagers and their parents about experiences they had endured. The children and their families talked of the violence and danger they faced at home from organized crime, the decision to flee their communities towards the north, and the challenges they have faced since, both on their perilous journeys and as they now work to establish more hopeful futures.

Based on data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), 113,000 children were living in internal displacement in Mexico at the end of 2022 due to of violence and conflict. This is more than double the 56,000 children estimated in 2002. In the last two years alone, over 38,000 new displacements due to conflict and violence were recorded in Mexico, of which an estimated 11,000 involved children.

“There are many parallels between the stories shared with me in Mexico, my own story and the stories I have heard in other parts of the world,” said Beah. “In just five days, I met many Mexican children affected by armed violence and forced recruitment by organized crime. I know there are tens of thousands more. Contexts may differ from one side of the world to another, but the devastating impact of violence on children remains the same. All these children and young people want to live without constant fear and loss.”

Many of the children and families Beah met escaped from being forced to join organized crime, attacks on communities, abductions, extortion or the loss of livelihoods. Many children fleeing armed violence do so on their own. UNICEF provides humanitarian assistance along their journey and works to reunite these children with their families.

“The degree of violence exerted by organized crime groups results in serious violations of the fundamental rights of children and adolescents, and deeply compromises their childhood, wellbeing, education and chances of becoming adults who can contribute positively to society,” said Representative of UNICEF Mexico Fernando Carrera. “Preventing and addressing the issue of child recruitment requires coordinated efforts that address the structural causes that sustain violence and generate protective factors for them, such as staying in school, positive and loving upbringing, and cultural offerings that promote peace and social cohesion.”

The IDMC notes that for Mexico, most of the displacement occurred due to conflict and violence, and primarily took place in the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Chiapas but also Chihuahua, Durango, Jalisco, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. Criminal violence accounted for 95 percent of the internal displacements recorded.

Additionally, either due to displacement or because of the context in their communities, between 145,000 and 250,000 children and adolescents are at risk of being recruited or used by criminal groups in Mexico, according to Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México (REDIM).

Children become part of armed criminal groups for various reasons. Some are abducted, threatened or coerced while others – driven by poverty – are compelled to generate income for their families. Some children may associate themselves with organized crime for survival or to protect their communities. No matter their involvement, the recruitment and use of children by criminal groups violates the fundamental rights of children to be free from violence and exploitation.

The Government of Mexico recently established a national body to prevent the recruitment of children by organized crime, recognizing the issue as a major public policy problem for the first time. Ensuring children are recognized as victims of rights violations by these groups paves the way for them to access fairer treatment, with a focus on their protection and care, and the restoration of rights. UNICEF is supporting the Government to translate these efforts into the country’s first national policy on child recruitment by organized crime which will outline comprehensive prevention, release and reintegration services for affected children.

“All recruitment of children into armed violence is forced and they are always victims, regardless of whether they are recruited to join a war or organized crime,” Beah remarked. “Criminal groups rob them of their childhood, expose them to extreme forms of violence, seriously compromising their future, wellbeing and lives. Even after fleeing, they are at risk and continuously threatened. They yearn to learn and to go to school, to have a regular life and to be able to become whatever they dream of. Even in these hard circumstances they have hope in what might come. Children who have been recruited need specialized attention so they can overcome their terrible experiences, rebuild their lives, and learn to be children again.”

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