(Population Today, February/March 2002) Natural disasters, economic crises, poverty, and other pressures have helped create a new kind of Latin American migrant. This traveler, who may be as young as 12 years old, is part of a growing population of street children in a region where the World Bank estimates that 90 million children — almost half of all minors — live in poverty.

Child advocates say the number of Central American migrants who are children has grown dramatically since Hurricane Mitch, with the numbers from Nicaragua and Honduras up to several thousand a year. The late-1998 storm killed thousands of people in Central America and increased the subregion’s social, economic, and ecological vulnerability. Honduras and Nicaragua, two of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, have hardly begun to recover from the devastation.

Street children are primarily an urban phenomenon; poverty drives people in search of better opportunities to urban areas, where family ties are looser, adult supervision less, and social safety nets often nonexistent. In an effort to escape hardship, children leave what served as home and walk, hitchhike, or hop trains in the unrealistic hope of reaching the United States. Most of them make it only to Guatemala, ending up in situations as poor as those they left. Far fewer may reach Mexico, and fewer still may get to the United States and Canada, according to Bruce Harris of Casa Alianza, a branch of the New York-based Covenant House that provides food, shelter, and other services to homeless children in Mexico and Central America.

“Those who make it to the United States generally follow the flow of Mexican migrants into the Southwest and more and more into the Carolinas and West Virginia,” said Harris, an internationally known advocate for children’s rights. “Those that get caught are shipped home,” he said, adding that many try to learn the Mexican national anthem to fool U.S. immigration agents into sending them only as far as Mexico City.

Typically, this type of Central American migrant is a boy, 12 to 16 years old, with no resident father, many siblings, and a mother who earns a living by washing clothes or sending her children out to sell tamales, said Harris. Often abused by family members, increasing numbers of these children look elsewhere for support. With no papers and little money, they are easily transformed into street children.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that, around the world, there are some 100 million children for whom the streets are home. In Honduras and Nicaragua, the World Bank calculates that 8 percent to 12 percent of all children below the age of 18 are working or living in the streets — or both. Of those children who work, live, and sleep in the streets, there has been an eightfold increase in the Honduran capital alone in the last decade, says the Bank.

Many migrant children sell their labor, while others, particularly girls, are sold into prostitution or are sexually exploited in other ways. Girls from Honduras and El Salvador have been lured to Guatemala, and Nicaraguan girls have gone to Guatemala and El Salvador with job offers, according to ECPAT International, a network of groups and individuals working to end child prostitution, child pornography, and the trafficking of children. The girls are taken to brothels, bars, or nightclubs and are at heightened risk of HIV infection.

For the most part, migrating street children beg or subsist on the little money they earn picking up garbage, hawking small goods, shining shoes, parking cars, and washing windshields. Some rely on petty crime and may seek escape by sniffing glue and using alcohol and other drugs. The World Bank reports local sources’ estimates that 90 percent of street children in Central America sniff glue. Without adult protection, young people wandering the streets suffer physical abuse and even murder at the hands of gangs and police. Police, who recognize street children’s vulnerability as illegal immigrants and criminals and tend to view such children as a public nuisance, according to Human Rights Watch, have been implicated in beatings, rapes, and murders of street children.

Despite major gains in improving children’s lives in the region during the past decade, many challenges remain. In Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, 500,000 children under 5 years old die annually of preventable diseases, and almost 4 million children younger than 5 are malnourished, 1999 UNICEF data indicate. The pressures on children are particularly acute in Central America, where countries continue to suffer the socioeconomic consequences of war, rapid population growth, and environmental degradation (see table).

Socioeconomic Context

  El Salvador Guatemala Honduras Nicaragua
Population in millions, 2000 6.4 13.0 6.7 5.2
GNI PPP per capita,* 1999 US$4260 US$3630 US$2270 US$2060
% of population below the national poverty line, 1999 48 58 53 50
Total fertility rate,** late 1990s 3.5 4.8 4.4 4.3
% of population under age 15 in 2000 36 44 43 43
% of primary school age children in school, 1999 78 77 86 80
% of population with access to safe drinking water, 2000 77 92 88 77

*Gross national income per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity.

**The average number of children per woman.

Sources: PRB’s 2001 World Population Data Sheet; UNDP, Human Development Report 2001; and UNICEF, Progress Since the World Summit for Children: A Statistical Review, 2001.

To address these issues, organizations and groups are promoting education, vocational training, and other initiatives to assist families and children in poor communities. Others engage in remedial activities that target street children, providing shelter, health care, drug rehabilitation, counseling, and job training. The ultimate goal of many of these programs is to resolve family conflicts and reunite the children with their families, or to place them in foster care. For the countries involved, the challenge is to translate the standards and commitments of international treaties — including the widely endorsed 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child — into action that makes a tangible difference to children living on the margins.

Yvette Collymore is senior editor at PRB.


Casa Alianza Website



World Bank, “Street Children in Central America: An Overview,” accessed at lnweb18.worldbank.org, on Jan. 22, 2002.

UNICEF, “Children First: UNICEF and the Pro-Tempore Secretariat Call on Latin America and the Caribbean to Give Children a Head Start in the New Millennium,” accessed at www.unicef.org, and “A Study on Street Children in Mexico City,” in Evaluation Newsletter, accessed at www.unicef.org/reseval/pdfs/evnews16.pdf, on Jan. 22, 2002.

Human Rights Watch, “Street Children,” accessed at www.hrw.org/children/street.htm, on Jan. 22, 2002.

ECPAT International, “Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Children in Central America,” ECPAT International Newsletters, Issue 36 (Sept. 1, 2001), accessed at www.ecpat.net, on Jan. 22, 2002.

The Inter-American Development Bank’s “Don’t Call Me Street Kid!” campaign, www.iadb.org/exr/spe/kidscampaign/.