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Report: Migrant kids fleeing violence could find refuge in Mexico but fail

BOGOTA — Thousands of migrant children fleeing gang violence in Central America could qualify for refugee status in Mexico, but only a tiny fraction actually seek that legal protection, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

The Mexican government is failing to identify and help those children escaping Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which have the world's highest murder rates, in fear of their lives and could be eligible for refugee status, HRW said in a report.

Last year, Mexican authorities apprehended more than 35,000 children, HRW said. Most came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and more than half were traveling alone, it said.

Yet less than 1 percent of those children were recognized in Mexico as refugees, it said.

"On paper, Mexican law appears to provide every protection for children who have fled their home countries in fear of their lives," Michael Bochenek, HRW's senior children's rights counsel, said in a statement.

"But only a handful actually receive asylum," he said. "Even though Central American children and adults face serious threats, the government is not giving adequate consideration to their claims."

In these Central American countries, entire neighborhoods are controlled by powerful street gangs. They use extortion, sexual violence, murder and forced recruitment of children to maintain control, HRW said.

Edgar V., one of dozens of migrant children interviewed by HRW, said he left Honduras to escape gang members that demanded he join them.

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"They hit me and I fell to the ground. From then on, they didn't hit me again, but they threatened my mother," the 17-year-old is quoted as saying. "They said they would kill me and my mother."

Many children do not want to apply in Mexico, as they are on their way to the United States where they have family, said Humberto Roque, the Mexican government's under-secretary for population, migration and religious affairs.

"The key reason why child migrants cross through Mexico is to reach the United States, and their fundamental aim is to be reunited with their parents there. That's why so few seek to claim refugee status in Mexico," Roque told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We have no problem in recognizing refugee status among people, including children, who find themselves in vulnerable situations," he said.

Roque said the Mexican government is meeting its obligation of informing migrants of their rights to claim refugee status.

Families seeking to escape poverty and hoping to find work do not qualify for refugee status, HRW said.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also said more needed to be done in Central America and Mexico to identify children who could qualify as refugees.

"Many cross into Mexico but remain invisible because they do not seek asylum," said Francesca Fontanini, UNHCR's regional information officer in Mexico.

According to HRW, migrant children stopped in Mexico are often held in facility centers it described as "prison-like."

The Mexican government said children were only held in such centers as a last resort for no more than three days.

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"We always try to place children in private and state facilities and shelters, but when the system is saturated children are placed in migration centers," Roque said.

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Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Salvadoran Andri Yovani (R), 2, and Honduran Kendri Hernandez, 3, play by a window inside a Catholic migrant shelter in San Luis Potosi on June 26, 2014.