Since 2011, the United States has experienced a surge in the number of unaccompanied children coming from Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and Mexico. In fiscal 2013, there were more than 40,000. More than 21,000 came from the three Central American countries, compared to 4,000 in 2011.
With the cooperation of the United States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees set out to learn why. The result was a report, released this month, “Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection.”
“While recognizing a significant contextual difference between the situation in Mexico and in the Northern Triangle of Central America, the common denominator is that all four countries are producing high numbers of unaccompanied and separated children seeking protection at the southern border of the United States,” the report says.
“UNHCR’s research was to ascertain the connection between the children’s stated reasons, the findings of recent studies on the increasing violence and insecurity in the region, and international protection needs.”
The project was a daunting one. To get a statistically meaningful sample, hundreds of children needed to be interviewed. Then the data from the interviews needed to be analyzed.
For help with that analysis, the U.N. agency consulted with Dr. Maura Busch Nsonwu of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, an assistant professor of social work and interim director of the social work bachelor’s degree program in the Department of Sociology and Social Work.
Dr. Nsonwu has worked with the U.N.’s refugee agency on a number of projects over the past three years. Her research focuses on refugees and human trafficking. She had conducted qualitative studies, so she had the necessary expertise. But this study had two dimensions unlike anything she had encountered.
The U.N. researchers had interviewed 404 children. Qualitative studies typically involve a smaller number, a couple dozen at the most, perhaps.
“It was absolutely huge,” Dr. Nsonwu says. “Qualitative researchers don’t have an ‘n’ like this,” referring to the traditional research notation for the number of subjects involved.
“How do you apply qualitative methodology on this scale?”
And if that wasn’t a big enough challenge, she also would have to work without actually seeing the data.
“This is a highly sensitive issue: children who crossed the border from four countries,” Dr. Nsonwu said. “You can see all of the politics involved and the sensitivities.”
In a typical academic study, researchers from different institutions can share data openly among their team members. But they typically don’t have to consider the sensibilities of the U.S. government and four Latin American governments on an especially sensitive aspect of a major political issue.
“It challenged me as a researcher, but this project was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in ground breaking work with an agency that is so highly respected,” she said. The UNHCR has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize twice. “The agency’s report will influence policy and practice decisions nationally and internationally.”
A process was worked out: Initially, the dialogue between Dr. Nsonwu and the UNHCR team focused on general questions of how to approach a project this large and multifaceted. As the project developed, the UNHCR team would call with very specific questions or requests. Dr. Nsonwu and her team would conduct literature reviews and consult with colleagues, locally and around the country, and report the findings back to UNHCR.
Among those colleagues was Dr. Noël Busch-Armendariz of the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Nsonwu’s sister and, like Dr. Nsonwu, a teacher and researcher in social work. They had collaborated on another UNHCR project, a study of Congolese refugee women, which had been led by Dr. Busch-Armendariz. For this project, she also provided Dr. Nsonwu with a student research fellow.
While the survey questionnaire and findings were not shared with Dr. Nsonwu and her team, “UNHCR did send us one research question and the findings, so we could get an idea of the scope of the study,” she said.
So, Dr. Nsonwu wasn’t working in the dark, exactly – “it was working in very dim light,” she says – but it was hard to tell how it was going.
“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out,” she says. “I couldn’t tell whether I was helping them or not.”
That question was answered last week when the UNHCR released its report, which included a grateful acknowledgement:
“For their advice on the qualitative analysis conducted and assistance with specific country condition research, UNHCR thanks Maura Busch Nsonwu of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and her student Devon Malik, as well as Noël Busch-Armendariz and Laurie Cook Heffron from the Center for Social Work Research Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, University of Texas at Austin.”
The report makes clear the harrowing situation of tens of thousands of the children fleeing their home countries on their own. Among its conclusions:
“Two overarching patterns of harm related to potential international protection needs emerged: violence by organized armed criminal actors and violence in the home. Forty-eight percent of the displaced children interviewed for this study shared experiences of how they had been personally affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs, or by State actors. Twenty-two percent of the children confided that they had survived abuse and violence in their homes by their caretakers.
“A third category of harm giving rise to potential international protection needs arose only among the children from Mexico: recruitment into and exploitation by the criminal industry of human smuggling – that is, facilitating others in crossing into the United States unlawfully. Thirty-nine percent of the children from Mexico fell into this category. Eleven percent of the children reported having suffered or being in fear of both violence in society and abuse in the home.
“UNHCR found that these types of serious harm raised by the children are clear indicators of the need to conduct a full review of international protection needs consistent with the obligations to ensure that unaccompanied and separated children are not returned to situations of harm or danger.”
If the U.N. report does have an impact on U.S. policy, one area that could be affected is how unaccompanied children from Mexico are treated. The report says the U.S. government’s practice is to send most of them back to Mexico within a day or two.