Reintegration and Repatriation for Guatemala’s Young Migrants

By Katherine Comly, GHRC Summer 2015 Intern

Photo: Reuters

On June 16, two graduate students from George Washington University hosted a panel discussion on their recent research involving youth repatriation in Guatemala. The event, hosted by the Wilson Center and moderated by Latin American Program Associate Director Eric Olson, discussed the students’ findings on resources and programs available to young children and teens returning to Guatemala after attempting to migrate north to Mexico or the United States. The issue of youth repatriation has become increasingly relevant after the rise in migration of unaccompanied minors last summer.

At the event, graduate student researchers Nathan Hesse and Warren Newton shared preliminary findings from their study on government and civil society engagement in the processes of repatriation, or the return to one’s place of origin or citizenship, and re-integration. They also presented their initial analysis of regional coordination of the Northern Triangle countries with Mexico and the US. Their research revealed that civil society groups, such as Colectivo Vivo Digna and Guatemala Child Return and Reintegration Project (GCRRP), are the chief organizers for repatriation programs, whereas the state provides minimal programs and services for returning youth.

The panel concluded with a series of recommendations for the advancement of repatriation programs for Guatemalan youth, which include:

• Cooperation between the Guatemalan government and civil society
• Community-led development
• Inclusion of funds for reintegration programs in development aid
• Political continuity and will
• Culturally and linguistically sensitive reintegration programs.

This research suggests that a high-capacity civil society and effective state are both necessary for such changes to be implemented, and for children and teens to experience a smooth return home. In many practical ways, it seems that successful repatriation programs are dependent on state and civil society coordination in order to help returning teens reenter public school systems, receive occupational training, and access psychological or psychosocial support. However, given the current conditions of the Guatemalan government—especially after the series of corruption scandals and subsequent removal of several high-ranking officials—it seems unlikely that the state will be able to effectively coordinate with local civil society groups on repatriation-centered efforts.

The challenges identified for repatriation programs reflect a much broader context of structural violence that is an important push factor for forced migration from the region. It was this issue that—following a spike in the undocumented migration of unaccompanied minors last summer—prompted the $1 billion request from President Obama as well as the “Alliance for Prosperity for the Northern Triangle,” a plan created by the region’s three presidents and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Hesse and Newton emphasized the importance of civil society’s involvement in the region’s plans for development, and applauded that a tentative 80% of the proposed plan will be distributed towards economic development efforts. “We’re really excited for this,” Newton stated at Tuesday’s event.

This positive portrayal of the Alliance for Prosperity, however, overlooks the existing gaps and limitations on government-civil society coordination, which seems to be at the cornerstone of their findings on effective repatriation programs. For example, civil society has already been vocal in highlighting concerns around the Alliance for Prosperity, including a lack of consultation on the development of the plan.

US development funds also have complicated, and sometimes unintended consequences; if not implemented with close consultation and leadership at the community level, they can lead to more forced migration. It may be a mute point, though, as just after the presentation the House Appropriations Committee came out with a proposed budget that dramatically cut the requested funding for Central America, focusing almost entirely on security funding.

Overall, these recommendations calling for government engagement struck me as abstract and unfeasible, considering Guatemala’s current political climate. After attending this panel event, I hope to see the emergence of informed, pragmatic perspectives within the conversation regarding migration and repatriation.

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