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Leaving is living: The impact of family, the economy and violence on migrant children from El Salvador

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Alfonso Álvarez, Silvana Audia Comandari, Marielos Burgos and Miguel Artiga, World Vision El Salvador


Over the past 40 years, both external and internal migration have been constant in the history of El Salvador. Many studies have been carried out on the issue of migration, however, never from the perspective of children. World Vision, a child-focused humanitarian aid organization, conducted migration studies in 2014 and 2019 – interviewing children directly as well as their caregivers – to gain a deeper understanding into the phenomenon of migration in El Salvador during the most recent migratory events: the mass migration of children in 2014 and the caravans in 2018. The studies have led to the development of recommendations for both government and non-government organizations that aim to prevent human rights violations and protect children before, during and after migration.

Despite migration being a common trend in El Salvador’s and the rest of the Northern Triangle’s (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) recent history, there has been limited first-hand evidence from children about their motivations and experiences while in irregular and regular migration processes. In some cases, the children are migrating alone and are the ones who suffer the most abuse and trauma.

The lack of support and mechanisms that provide assistance make it a dangerous solution. Nevertheless, from their parents’ and caregivers’ perspective, leaving is still the best option. To stay in their communities means very few economic opportunities and little to no safety, and, in many cases, migration is the only solution for family reunification. The findings of World Vision’s studies outline the social and economic factors that influence children's and caregivers’ decisions to migrate. The findings also provide empirical evidence of the nature of children’s lived experiences along migratory routes, while highlighting the crucial role of families and migrant shelters throughout migration processes.

To generate these findings, World Vision conducted surveys and interviews, ultimately reaching over 2,000 children and 400 primary caretakers through both studies. Participants were selected from World Vision’s sponsorship programs located in 27 municipalities, of which 25 had some of the highest migration indexes for children in El Salvador. Using the information obtained from these studies, World Vision identified and analyzed the role different factors such as age, family status, education and employment played in children's and caregivers' main motivation and ultimate decision to migrate.

Based on the findings of these studies, World Vision identified that Salvadorian children were principally motivated to migrate for three main reasons: (1) family reunification (2) economic exclusion and/or opportunities elsewhere, and (3) social violence occurring in their community. This paper intends to provide evidence of these motivations – as expressed by children and primary caretakers in El Salvador – to migrate to other parts of El Salvador or to another country.

Although the findings have been structured in a conclusive manner, the motivations to migrate and the various factors that influence them are not unique and mutually exclusive. Rather, these motivations are largely interconnected and come into play simultaneously. Therefore, it is imperative that the Salvadorian state, local governments and civil society organizations understand the complexity of migration processes involving children. In this way, this paper recommends that multi-level strategies that articulate the roles of each of these actors be established to ensure that the various dimensions of migration are addressed in an effective manner. The goal of these efforts is to create long-term solutions that lead to transformation in the contexts where children live and interact in El Salvador and throughout the rest of the Northern Triangle of Central America.