Migrant children using technology in Central America

Daniel tried to migrate to the United States to reunite with his parents. He didn’t succeed. UNICEF staff talked with him in El Salvador to understand how technology affects the migration process and to seek solutions.

Daniel (not his real name) doesn’t stop looking at his cell phone. Sometimes he dives into WhatsApp. Other times, he checks the Facebook profile of a friend he met during his failed migration to the United States. He’s sitting on a bench in the Centre for Attention to Children, Adolescents and the Family (CANAF: Centro de Atención a Niñez, Adolescentes y Familia) in San Salvador. His head rises and falls, using the phone as protection, while he explains the dangerous path he followed some months ago.

Daniel is one of the 34,056 migrant children and adolescents from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras returned to their countries of origin in 2016, mainly from Mexico and the United States. They decided to migrate for diverse reasons: to flee violence and the influence of gangs and organised crime, to reunite with their families or simply to seek better opportunities.

Like any good twenty-first century adolescent, technology was important in his decision to migrate northwards. His parents live on the US west coast.  Talking with them at an internet café, the idea of Daniel going to the United States arose. He applied for a visa, but it was denied. Nonetheless, he decided to migrate after being contacted by local gangs. He refused to join them, and they threatened him. He felt unsafe and decided, in desperation, to try to reunite with his parents.

UNICEF/Adriana ZehbrauskasJessica walks around through the streets of Santa Tecla in El Salvador.

He obtained information on the route for migration mainly from returned friends and neighbours, with tips about what buses to take and what border areas to avoid. Despite being a digital native and making wide use of social networks, Daniel did not use them to find information before migrating. He didn’t know what to look for or where, and lacked a cell phone set up to download applications.

Technology use during migration is very limited for several reasons: the cost of a cell phone with permanent access to the Internet, fear of theft or retention of the telephone if migrating with a “coyote” (a person paid to facilitate transportation), or day-to-day factors, such as the lack of places to recharge the cell phone or damage when crossing rivers and mountains. Technology does not survive such conditions.

Daniel did not reach the United States border: he was detained shortly after crossing from Guatemala to México and sent to a migrant detention centre. Authorities reviewed his case and decided to repatriate him. He returned by bus, with other Salvadoran migrants, to the main migrant reception centre in San Salvador. Over the last year, more than 45,000 returned Salvadorans were recorded at this place.

Daniel had to give his personal data to diverse public institutions three times. Institutional digital infrastructure is very limited, and this can lead to the revictimisation of migrant children, forced to tell their story over and over again.

The UNICEF offices in these countries support interventions to guarantee the rights of migrant and refugee children and adolescents in origin, transit and destination countries, such as caring for child asylum seekers, offering help on the asylum process, and supporting education and protection projects at the municipal level in countries of origin.

Technology will not solve the problem of migration, but the companies that provide the services and applications used by adolescents can make the reality of child migration visible and help support protective actions.

For example, on the route there is a network of shelters for migrants that, thanks to the mobile ecosystem, could use new technologies to provide more information and connectivity to children and adolescents on the move. At present, 62% of the migrants in Central America (including children) are victims of trafficking. Tech companies can cooperate with governments to strengthen digital infrastructure, helping to record and follow young people on the move and those who have arrived.

When asked whether he wants to migrate again, Daniel maintains a revealing silence and takes refuge in his cell phone ­– that device that could help him a lot if proposals like those in the previous paragraph became reality.


Marcelo Ber is the Child Rights and Business focal point for Latin America and the Caribbean. Francisco Biber is a consultant on Child Rights and Business


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”