Thirty-two years ago, a former United Nations Secretary delivered an important message about an unmet duty.
The world must ensure, said Javier Perez de Cuellar, that “all children, without any exception whatsoever, enjoy special protection.” It is children, he said, who “pay the highest price of aggression in its various forms.”
Today is commemorated as International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression to acknowledge the pain suffered by children who are the victims of abuse and to affirm the commitment to protect the rights of all children.
It is a commitment that Javier Dominguez is reminded of every day.
Javier is the Children’s Attorney at Tahirih Houston. His position is part of the Children’s Border Project, a Tahirih Justice Center initiative to respond to the urgent legal advocacy needs of children who are fleeing violence in Central American countries in record numbers.
Gender-based violence has emerged as one of the root causes of the influx of more than 60,000 unaccompanied children to the United States in 2014.
Girls now account for almost half of all unaccompanied children arriving in the United States, and they commonly cite domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape as reasons for making the dangerous trip north.
“They have to flee — leave their homes, their parents, their families — to avoid getting raped or killed. They don’t see it as a way to exploit the immigration system, but as survival. They don’t have a choice,” says Javier.
Homicide rates have spiked in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, making these countries twice as dangerous as Iraq.
Girls fleeing violence are particularly vulnerable to continued exploitation and abuse once they leave their homes. One Border Project client fled to the United States to escape a violent gang member who physically assaulted, threatened, and stalked her, even when she relocated to a different part of the country. She fled to the United States with her brother. But on the trip north, she was sexually abused by her guide. Rape is so common that girls’ families often send them on their journey with birth-control injections, said Anne Chandler, the director of Tahirih Houston.
Once a girl arrives in the United States, safety is far from guaranteed.
She must then navigate the complex legal system to avoid being sent back into the violent, life-threatening situations she originally fled. She may be placed in detention in a remote area of Texas, where it is difficult to get the legal and social services she needs to access the justice system and heal from trauma.
In fact, Javier is currently supervising a habeas corpus petition to free a young girl who had been unlawfully confined at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter for over a year.
“Our clients are really scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Javier says.
Children must contend with a range of obstacles even if they are lucky enough to obtain legal representation, including transportation challenges, post-traumatic stress disorder, long-term psychological damage, and accelerated deadlines to file complicated cases.
Most of Javier’s clients are teenagers; some are as young as 9.
Alongside Javier and our Houston office, Tahirih Justice Center is privileged to serve the children of our Border Project.
This June 4, and every day of the year, we honor their courage. We affirm our commitment to creating a world in which the children we serve, and children throughout the world, no longer pay the highest price of aggression.