Choosing Home: Canadian charity helps 800,000 children and youth find brighter future in Central America and Mexico rather than risk dangers of irregular migration

Children Believe’s project, supported by Government of Canada, reaches successful conclusion; International Development Week panel to explore ongoing global issue

Markham, Ontario

Markham, Ontario, Canada, Feb. 02, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The world is home to 281 million international migrants at any given time, many of them vulnerable women and children. For most, leaving their homeland is not desirable, but because they feel they have no other option, they go in search of basic human rights such as jobs, education, healthcare, food and safety. Classified as irregular migrants, they leave without proper documentation or legal status, becoming stateless and in danger of various forms of exploitation.

Irregular migration has increased dramatically in recent years as many countries see a rise in violence and societal breakdowns affecting their people, meaning less safety and a perceived lack of future prosperity. Coupled with insufficient local programs and services to help them overcome these issues, families risk everything – including separation, incarceration and even death – in search of a better life.

This global humanitarian issue, while extremely complex, is preventable, as demonstrated by Children Believe over the last five years (2017 – 2021). During this time, the Canadian charity helped avert 180,000 vulnerable children, over 620,000 youth and an additional 483,000 adults, who are often the parents of these children, from choosing to migrate. The multinational project, entitled PICMCA: Preventing Irregular Child Migration in Central America has improved the lives of children at risk and removed many of the factors pushing them to leave their home communities.

Led by Children Believe and in collaboration with its ChildFund Alliance partners, ChildFund International and Educo, PICMCA engaged children and youth in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico.

“Tackling the root causes motivating children to leave their home was incredibly effective in reducing irregular migration,” says Fred Witteveen, CEO, Children Believe. “The project had a preventive approach and we worked through targeted investments in 155 at-risk communities. We strengthened child protection services and violence prevention programs, increased employment and entrepreneurship skills to help youth generate income, and enabled gender-responsive engagement of youth with local, national and regional institutions.”

Today, Children Believe reveals some key findings[i] of PICMCA including:

  • In the final evaluation, 85 percent of young people agreed that the project improved their living conditions, due to youth skills development, employment training and mentorship programs.
  • At the start of the project, 59 percent of young people believed their lives would be better if they migrated to another destination. At the end, this number fell to 44 percent. Creating awareness among children and youth about the dangers of migrating irregularly and the alternatives offered by their country proved successful.
  • 91 percent of young people who participated in the project said they now felt safe in their communities, compared to 84 percent at the start of the project. This 15 percent improvement was achieved by strengthening child protection services, promoting child rights and gender equality, and improving prevention strategies for children who are victims of child labour, discrimination and violence.
  • Following youth leadership skills training and civic engagement initiatives, 84 percent of young women and men expressed that their opinion was now taken into account in their community or neighbourhood. Further, 38 percent of women assumed leadership roles in their communities.

“Children Believe worked with education centres, local partners, youth groups and private organizations to put the possibility of community growth within reach for at-risk children and youth,” explains Witteveen. “Through training programs and mentorship, PICMCA empowered children to dream and reach their full potential.”

Additionally, according to one female project participant, training, access to entrepreneurship opportunities and seed capital helped them launch a business venture and become financially independent.

“I saw a positive way forward in my community instead of believing that leaving was my only option,” says Judy Chow, 21, from Nicaragua. “Through PICMCA, I was able to start my own business as a make-up artist and become economically stable. I started to feel safe in my community and believe in my rights as a woman.”

Virtual panel discussion on full PICMCA findings and way forward
The full project results and a way forward will be discussed during a virtual panel of humanitarian sector experts, government leaders and youth who participated in the PICMCA project, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022 at 10 AM (EST).

The panel is part of Canada’s annual International Development Week and will be moderated by award-winning CBC News Senior Correspondent, Susan Ormiston, who has decades of experience covering major global events as well as irregular migration to Canada. (See below for more details and the registration link).

Irregular youth migration is a global issue
Children (ages six to 14) and youth (ages 15 to 24) make up a large proportion of international migrants. Alarmingly, according to UNICEF[ii], one-in-five migrants is a young person and 36 million are children. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimated that in 2014, more than 68,000 unaccompanied children from Central America arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2015, this number dropped to 40,000, but in 2016, rose again to more than 59,000.

These vulnerable groups are desperately trying to overcome struggles, such as a lack of economic opportunity, poverty, limited access to quality education and high levels of violence. Yet the devastating reality is that a significant number of irregular child migrants, particularly girls and young women, experience violence, exploitation and abuse when they’re on the move. Some never reach their destination.

“Children are among the most vulnerable groups of displaced populations, and they are trying to cross borders without a parent or guardian as a last resort to a better life,” says Witteveen. “But it doesn’t need to be this way. Children deserve protection and the opportunity to grow up safely and happily at home, and PICMCA has proven this is possible.”

This irregular migration epidemic has also reached our doorstep. Here in Canada, one of the routes that migrants take to seek a new beginning is via Quebec’s Roxham Road. This unofficial crossing marks the border of upstate New York and the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle municipality of Quebec and between 2017 – March 2020, it saw more than 50,000 people seek asylum.

The event is open to the public and media to engage on this important issue and together find solutions.

Wednesday, February 9: virtual panel on full PICMCA findings and way forward

On February 9, 2022, at 10 AM (EST), Children Believe will host a virtual panel on Promising Solutions and Lessons in Addressing Irregular Migration of Children in Central America and Mexico.

This event will reveal the full results of PICMCA, the key challenges that exist, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the greater need for key stakeholders to join together to protect and support children and families at elevated risk of irregular migration.

Moderated by award-winning CBC News Senior Correspondent, Susan Ormiston, who has decades of experience covering major global events as well as irregular migration to Canada, the virtual panel will feature government officials, critical stakeholders in the immigration sector, and youth from the Central America region.

Panelists include: 

  • Fred Witteveen, Children Believe CEO 
  • Dana Graber Ladek, Chief of Mission, International Organization for Migration Mexico
  • Soileh Padilla Mayer, First Secretary, Embassy of Mexico in Canada
  • Meg Gardinier, Secretary General, ChildFund Alliance
  • Susan Handrigan, CEO, Canada World Youth
  • Maria Isabel Lopez, Country Director, Children Believe Nicaragua
  • Sonia Alvarenga, PICMCA project participant, Youth Ambassador
  • Héctor Villalta, PICMCA project participant, Youth Ambassador

Those interested in attending the virtual event can join in via Zoom and register here. Children Believe will also live stream the panel on its Facebook page:  

The final evaluation report on PICMCA can be downloaded here.

About Children Believe
Children Believe works globally to empower children to dream fearlessly, stand up for what they believe in – and be heard. For 60+ years, we’ve brought together brave young dreamers, caring supporters and partners, and unabashed idealists. Together, we’re driven by a common belief: creating access to education – inside and outside of classrooms – is the most powerful tool children can use to change their world.  

About ChildFund Alliance
A member of ChildFund Alliance, Children Believe is part of a global network of 12 child-focused development organizations working to create opportunities for children and youth, their families and communities. ChildFund helps nearly 23-million children and their families in more than 70 countries overcome poverty and underlying conditions that prevent children from achieving their full potential. We work to end violence against children; provide expertise in emergencies and disasters to ease the harmful impact on children and their communities; and engage children and youth to create lasting change and elevate their voices in decisions that affect their lives.

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For more information or to arrange an interview with Fred Witteveen, please contact:  

Darcy Greaves, Strategic Objectives, 519-504-6049


Dave Stell, Communications Manager, Children Believe 416-898-6770

[i] PICMCA. The final evaluation survey was given to a sample group of 1,695 young people who participated in the project, with 73 percent of respondents being between the ages of 18 and 29 years (1,231 people).

[ii] UNICEF, A child is a child: Protecting children on the move from violence, abuse and exploitation, May, 2017



Children Believe Virtual Panel

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