BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of children entering the United States illegally from Central America might qualify for refugee status but are being deported to their own country where they face persecution by gangs, the United Nations Refugee Agency has warned.
The arrival of nearly 70,000 children traveling alone at the U.S. border last year - mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - sparked a row in Washington over how to handle a crisis President Barack Obama called "an urgent humanitarian situation".
Many children are making the dangerous journey from Central America - a region with the world’s highest murder rates - through Mexico to the United States to escape rampant drug-fuelled gang violence at home.
Children stopped by immigration officials in the U.S. or Mexico and deported can face persecution by local street gangs, known as maras, and could therefore be eligible for refugee status, the UNHCR says.
"Some children and their families are afraid of being persecuted by the maras when they return. Our interest is that children are properly interviewed before they are deported," said Fernando Protti, UNHCR regional representative for Central America.
"We believe that if their cases were further analyzed, many would be recognized as refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution and lack of protection in their country of origin," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Panama City.
Between January and September 2014, Mexico deported 6,623 children back to Honduras, and the United States deported 564 children with relatives back to Honduras, that country's National Migration Institute says.
Gangs control entire neighborhoods of towns in Honduras through extortion, sexual violence against girls and women, threats, killings and forced recruitment of children.
Children also face danger if they witness a gang crime, defy gang members' orders and cross streets that mark gang territory.
"The maras are interested in recruiting children and extorting them and their families. Those who don't accept to be part of the maras face threats and can be killed," Protti said.
This violence is why families send their children to the United States on their own, UNHCR research shows.
Nearly 60 percent of 404 children interviewed in 2013 for a UNHCR report said they had fled abroad because they feared being recruited or faced harm at the hands of armed groups, including drug cartels, gangs or state security forces.
"Parents aren't sending their children on a nice adventure. They are really afraid of what could happen to their children because of the mara persecution if they stay in their country," Potti said.
Many children, usually teenagers, are being deported back to Central America without even speaking to an attorney before or during their U.S. deportation hearings, according to the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, a rights group.
Last November, in a bid to stem the influx of undocumented child migrants, the Obama administration said it would allow some children in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to apply for refugee status from their home countries.
The program is only for children whose parents are legal residents of the United States.
It is unclear what impact the plan will have on the migration problem, as the quota for refugee applications from all of Latin America is just 4,000 people.
A State Department fact sheet said there may be some flexibility with that number for the fiscal year ending Sept.30.
The White House recently announced that Obama's fiscal 2016 budget would include $1 billion in new aid for Central America, aimed at tackling the region's high crime and poverty rates and in turn helping to stem the flow of would-be migrants.
Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tim Pearce