Little Birds: Messages from migrant children at the US-Mexico border

From a shelter in northern Mexico, seven children share their hopes and dreams for the future in an animated documentary.

Drawing of two birds hugging

Mexico 2023 © MSF

Last updated on May 31, 2024 

Across the world, people are on the move more than ever before, crossing borders in search of safety and a better future. In the Americas, this group increasingly includes families and children, including children traveling alone.

In the animated documentary, "Little Birds," Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and ¡Hola! Combo present the stories of seven children living at the Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, where we provide physical and mental health care to people whose lives have been uprooted, including children.

Little Birds: Messages from Migrant Children at the US-Mexico Border

Like migratory birds, these children cross borders and adapt to survive.

Watch the documentary

Children on the move

The number of children migrating through Central America and Mexico surged in 2023, and many were unaccompanied. Between October and September last year, border authorities recorded more than 137,000 encounters with unaccompanied children, according to UNICEF. 

Many migrants travel through the treacherous Darién Gap before reaching the US-Mexico border. Of more than half a million Darién crossings in 2023, UNICEF reports that  22 percent—1 in 5—were children. The numbers are even more alarming in Mexico, where 1 in 3 migrants detained is a minor, and half are traveling without their parents, which is the highest proportion ever recorded.  

Drawing of a mother hugging her child

"I pray to God that I will cross the border and be with my dad there... That I can go to the United States ... and be happy there."

“Yo le pido a Dios que sí voy a pasar y voy a estar algún día con mi papá allá... Que ya me fuera a Estados Unidos… para allá ser feliz.”

Children are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of migration, especially if they are traveling alone. “Family unity is integral to children’s development,” said Marisol Quiceno, MSF advocacy representative. “They need the support and protection of their family to avoid traumas that may affect their personal and social development.”

"A boy came recently for a mental health consultation because his parents died and he was left with his three siblings, who were all taking care of each other. When his parents died, he was forced to migrate to support his other siblings. In his consultation, the boy told me he missed his grandmother very much and, as a coping mechanism, he prayed every day for his little brothers and his family." 

Drawing of a boy with birds.

Drawing of two people swimming next to sharks.

Drawing of a grandfather helping a child ride a bike.

The impact of inhumane border policies

In Mexico, the majority of people seeking safety are from Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—countries facing gang violence that is so severe, it’s on par with war zones in other countries where Doctors Without Borders works. In addition to violence, poverty, and climate disasters are also driving forces behind migration.  

In cities along the US-Mexico border including Reynosa, inhumane US border policies and inadequate humanitarian responses from both US and Mexican governments have resulted in terrible conditions for people seeking safety. In makeshift camps and shelters, many live without cover from rain and extreme temperatures, and lack access to basic services like food, water, and sanitation. Others may live on the streets or wind up in detention facilities, including children. 

Drawing of a mother and child saying goodbye.

Drawing of a border patrol officer

Drawing of a person in detention.

How we're responding to the needs of migrant children

Doctors Without Borders teams working throughout the Central American migration route witness the physical and psychological impact of migration on children, particularly on those under five years old, who make up a large portion of consultations. In 2022, our teams provided more than 108,510 medical and 10,183 mental health consultations to migrants and asylum seekers, including thousands of minors. Between January and April 2023 alone, Doctors Without Borders in Mexico treated 2,378 migrant children under the age of five.

Our teams treat health problems like respiratory infections, acute diarrhea, skin conditions, and other gastrointestinal diseases, which are the most frequent diagnoses for children under five. We also see the effects of psychological trauma. Children, like adults, may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, grief, and depression resulting from their experiences along the migration route and in the countries they have fled—often with deeper, longer-lasting impact due to their young age. 

"Did you know that when baby birds are born and are tiny, their parents hide them under their wings so that the rain doesn't fall on them? They protect them, just like our moms protect us from everything bad."

"Saben que los pájaros, por, cuando nacen los pajaritos chiquitos, ellos los esconden abajo de sus alas para que, para que no les caiga el agua cuando llueve, ellos los protegen. Así como nuestras mamás nos protegen a nosotros de todo lo malo."
Drawing of a mother holding her child as they flee through the Americas.

During mental health activities and consultations carried out by our teams, these children report feeling sadness, nostalgia for their old lives, fear, worry, and constant stress due to both the traumas survived along the migration route and the deplorable conditions they’re forced to live in—whether in overcrowded shelters, makeshift camps, or the street.

The animations featured in the "Little Birds" documentary are based on the children’s drawings and center the voices of those who suffer the impacts of harmful US and Mexico immigration policies. The workshop is an example of how Doctors Without Borders tailors our psychosocial activities to the critical needs of children—for whom even the simple act of holding a crayon may allow them to access feelings they cannot express in words.

Watch "Little Birds" now >

All images Mexico 2023 © MSF