A group of people, including children, attempt to cross into the United States from Mexico. ©Terre des Hommes Schweiz

Destination Unknown campaign member Terre des Hommes is working to provide psychosocial support to children and young people forcibly returned to El Salvador from the United States and Mexico.

The number of children fleeing El Salvador is increasing – but they are not being given the protection they need.

Those who make it as far north as the United States are often deported within days, showing that systems for identifying, screening and providing access to international protection need to be drastically improved. Without this, children run the risk of being jettisoned back into danger – as many of the 8,000 children forcibly returned to El Salvador in 2016 can testify.

Forced returns and gang violence

With more people being forcibly returned to Central American countries, including El Salvador, lessons from the past must be learnt on why reintegrating returnees is so important.

During the 1980s, when civil wars were taking place within many states in the region and the Cold War hovered ominously overhead, human rights violations were commonplace.

Many people fled to the US. But they lived segregated lives in poor conditions – pushing them into joining gangs, or Maras, as a way of survival and protection. When this spate of civil wars ended, many gang members were deported from the US to their countries of origin.

In El Salvador, returnees who were gang members in the United States started reforming their groups and operating how they had previously done. The country lacked the ability to reintegrate them into society, which on top of the poverty and lack of employment opportunities caused the Mara phenomena.

Untreated trauma

People who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, whether forced to flee by criminal gangs or deported back to El Salvador after building lives abroad, can be severely traumatised. Various organisations working with returnees agree that the untreated short and long term consequences of forced displacement on their mental health is one of the most serious problems affecting them.

These psychological burdens can render the young people returned to El Salvador incapable of rebuilding their lives.

Psychosocial support is a powerful tool which helps people develop their own coping strategies to manage their fears and deal with what they have been through – reducing their anxiety and stress, and helping them to build a future for themselves. But treatment for mental health issues is not being considered a priority.

The lack of support for returnees and the inability to properly reintegrate them into society leaves traumatised children and young people vulnerable to recruitment or persecution by the Maras. These gangs in turn get stronger by exploiting those forcibly returned, making more people flee who are then themselves exploited if they are deported back to where they fled – a vicious circle of violence, migration and deportation.

From stigmatisation to reintegration

Discrimination and stigmatisation are also important factors hindering the proper reintegration of returnees in their local communities. Many young returnees do not become involved in gangs upon their return, but are still seen by other people in the local community as ‘losers’ because of their deportation.

Terre des Hommes, as part of the Destination Unknown campaign, is working on a pilot project with El Salvadorian partner the Association for Training and Research of Mental Health to provide psychosocial support for returnee children and young people.

The project will research the specific needs of children who have been returned to El Salvador and seeks to understand how psychosocial support can best help them. This will be done by both providing returnees with this support and asking them to provide feedback on how they are feeling, what they need and if and how the assistance is benefitting them.

The project’s findings will form the basis for developing more comprehensive psychosocial approaches to help young returnees reintegrate into society. It also aims to help break the negative stigmatisation of young returnees by educating people about their needs through community discussions groups.

Psychosocial support is essential to helping forcibly returned young people overcome the traumas they have experienced. Only targeted and unified approaches to social reintegration can stop these young people getting trapped in a vicious circle of gang violence – whether by being forced to join the Maras or attempting to flee their clutches once again.


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