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MIGRATION-LATIN AMERICA: Remittances Do Not Fill Gap for Children Left Behind

Raúl Pierri

MONTEVIDEO, Oct 6 2006 (IPS) - The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean should adopt policies providing special protection for children affected by the negative impact of emigration, a phenomenon that increases their vulnerability, UNICEF warned this week in the Uruguayan capital.

“A number of consequences for children and adolescents are lost sight of in a simplistic, purely economic vision,” Nils Kastberg, UNICEF regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS.

“In that context, policies should be adopted to curtail the negative impact (of migration) on children,” he added.

The United Nations children’s fund official issued that call at the Eighth Ibero-American Conference of ministers of children and youth services, hosted Friday and Saturday by Montevideo.

The ministers of 18 Latin American countries plus Andorra, Spain and Portugal are discussing proposals on migration-related issues to be presented at the 16th Ibero-American Summit of heads of state and government, to take place in November in the Uruguayan capital. Ibero-American legislators met here for the same purpose last week.

Kastberg underlined the importance of expatriate remittances to the development of children in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Remittances, which have become the region’s largest source of external financing, rose twofold worldwide in the last five years, and have a major impact at a national, community and family level, and on the lives of children and adolescents.

By 2005, global remittances had climbed to 167 billion dollars, although unregistered remittances could represent an additional 50 percent, according to the World Bank.

Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the main receiving regions, took in 45 billion dollars in remittances in 2004.

“Remittances obviously have positive effects, according to studies which show that they contribute to reducing chronic malnutrition and improving school performance and enrolment,” said Kastberg.

However, he clarified that a large part of the remittances, especially when they are sent home by men, go towards improving housing and other infrastructure, and do not necessarily directly benefit children in other ways.

“What is clearly needed here are policies that would help generate understanding on the importance of protecting good education for children, as well as good health services,” he said.

But, Kastberg acknowledged, “Remittances provide a financial boost to families that enables them to reach a standard of living adequate to the development of their children, which would perhaps not be possible otherwise.”

“According to a Mexican household survey, they contribute to improvements in infant health, reducing post-partum malnutrition by 5.4 percent and infant mortality by three percent, and they increase the probability of professional care in childbirth by 30 percent,” he added.

However, UNICEF maintains that migration has some very harmful effects on Latin American children, including the disintegration of the family and increased vulnerability.

“If one or both parents emigrate, household and child-rearing responsibilities fall to older adults, second or third degree relatives, or even brothers or sisters. In any of these scenarios there is a real or potential risk that the children will not receive the same health and nutritional care, and protection against abuse and exploitation, that they would have received from their parents,” Kastberg said.

Furthermore, the absence of their parents implies “the loss of their most important role models, nurturers and caregivers, and this has a significant psychosocial impact that can translate into feelings of abandonment, vulnerability, and loss of self-esteem, among others.”

Article 10 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges signatory states to guarantee family reunification for the children of emigrants.

Other effects of migration on the lives of some Latin American children are undocumented status and human trafficking.

There are an estimated 190 million emigrants worldwide, of whom about 25 million, or 13 percent, are from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The main destination for Latin Americans is the United States, where about 18 million migrants from this region live, plus their children and grandchildren born in that country. Spain holds the second place, with 1.2 million Latin American immigrants in 2004, according to information from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Between 1986 and 2002, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States tripled, from 3.2 million to 9.3 million. Most estimates now mention between 10 and 12 million.

Nearly half the immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean living in the United States have no documents.

“Undocumented status violates children’s rights to a nationality, a name and an identity. It is also a barrier to their access to health and education services, and makes them especially vulnerable to trafficking, illegal adoption, inappropriately early marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation,” Kastberg said.

Every year between 600,000 and 800,000 people worldwide fall victim to human trafficking, of whom 80 percent are female and 50 percent are minors, according to the U.S. State Department.

“Children and teenagers in these circumstances are often used as cheap labour, exploited in domestic work or recruited for military service. This poses serious consequences for the life and health of children, particularly in connection with acts of violence and all types of abuse,” Kastberg said.

Children are also indirectly affected by the phenomenon of brain drain, Kastberg noted. “Boys and girls suffer from the lack of health professionals in countries like Jamaica, where approximately 40 percent of doctors have emigrated,” he said.

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