Why Refugees are Fleeing Central AmericaThe northern region of Central America is currently one of the most dangerous places on Earth. So, it’s no surprise that refugees are fleeing Central America. This circumstance has caused high levels of migration as many refugees are fleeing for their lives. In countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, many people experience gang-related violence, human trafficking and extreme poverty. The brutality forcing refugees to leave their homes is constant and not improving.

Moreover, poverty in Central America is widespread. In some regions, half of the population lives below the poverty line. Consequently, the number of asylum-seekers is increasing in neighboring countries, such as Mexico and the U.S. In 2014, there were 2,000 asylum applications in Mexico. In 2017, applications escalated to more than 14,000. As this crisis continues, it is important to understand the reasons why refugees are fleeing Central America.

Gang Culture in Central America

In the 1980s, civil wars weakened countries in Central America, leaving a legacy of violence and fragile governments. Due to these civil wars and mass deportations from the U.S., organized crime groups flourished. These groups grew into the overwhelming gangs present today.

Over the last 15 years, gangs have taken over rural and urban areas within Central America. They target poor, and thus vulnerable, communities by imposing their own authority. They also recruit boys as young as 12 years old and living in poverty as they lack educational or economic opportunities. Because of gang violence, the Northern Triangle is considered one of the deadliest places in the world, outside a war zone. For example, between 2014 and 2017, almost 20,000 Salvadorans were killed due to gang-related violence.

Gang culture has deeply penetrated the social fabric of northern Central America. Their grip on society is so severe that many migrants fear that their deportation will result in death. For example, 82 percent of women reported they would most likely be tortured or killed if they were to return home. Despite decades of authorities trying to eliminate gang activity, these criminal groups remain defiant and seemingly unbreakable.

Extortion and Human Trafficking

Similarly, extortion-related crimes are common in this region. Gangs extort small businesses and local individuals by forcing them to pay protection payments. If these individuals cannot afford these amounts, the gangs will murder them. For example, it is estimated locals in Honduras pay $200 million in extortion fees every year. Extortion fees cost Salvadorans $756 million a year. This results in a significant financial loss for local businesses and endangers many lives.

Moreover, human trafficking is another common reason why refugees are fleeing Central America. Women and young girls are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Often, gangs target and traffick young children for the sex trade. In Guatemala alone, at least 15,000 children are victims of child sex trafficking networks.

Gangs also manipulate children. They subject children to forced labor, making them sell and transport drugs throughout El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Though widespread, authorities prosecute an extremely low number of people accused of human trafficking. In Guatemala between 2009 and 2013, police detained 604 human traffickers. However, only 183 went to trial and only 33 were convicted.

Helping Central America

A huge reason why refugees are fleeing Central America is lack of opportunity. Of course, this is largely due to the rampant crime and violence in the region. While the reality is grim, there is a reason to be optimistic. Many organizations and volunteers help these migrants in any way they can. In particular, Doctors Without Borders has been providing medical relief and mental health care to refugees traveling along migration routes through Mexico since 2013. The organization reported they provided more than 33,000 consultations at mobile health clinics and other facilities. Many patients need mental health care, especially women who are victims of sexual abuse. In fact, 31 percent of women reported being sexually assaulted along their journey.

UNICEF also recognizes the humanitarian crisis happening in Central America. UNICEF has offices in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In these countries, UNICEF is working directly with people to prevent violence and alleviate poverty. They also help reintegrate deported children into their home countries and support children in asylum countries, protecting them from discrimination and xenophobia. UNICEF’s work in Central America is necessary as it is bettering the lives of many vulnerable people.

Often times, the only ways for migrants to escape the persecution and violence plaguing their hometowns is to seek asylum in another country. No matter how bleak these circumstances may be, hope can be found through the compassion and understanding of volunteers around the world. By understanding why refugees are fleeing Central America, people and organizations can begin working to change the conditions in these countries.

Marissa Pekular
Photo: Flickr

Policies Leave Child Immigrants Helpless and Endangered
U.S. legislation meant to help children escape violence and corruption in Central America is only hampering their efforts to find safety. As gang warfare escalates, the number of children trying to cross the southern U.S. border through Mexico has hit an all-time high, but none of these child immigrants have been granted access.

The U.S.’s most recent program for Central America minors (CAM) has been created to help child immigrants in the violent “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador whose parents are legally residing in the U.S. Its goal is to help aid in the perilous passage through Mexico to the U.S. border.

However, Mexico has not been one to cooperate, deporting 10,000 child immigrants from October 2014 to March 2015. Mexico’s policies for processing and granting asylum to children are also slow and insufficient for the influx of kids seeking shelter in the U.S. As a result, half the number of Central American children reached the U.S. in 2015 as did in 2014. In 2014 alone, 68,000 children were apprehended at the U.S. border with Mexico. Although over 2,000 kids have applied for the CAM program, not a single one has been granted access to the States. There are a number of reasons for this lack of implementation.

For one, extensive paperwork is required for each child, including DNA testing of both parents, birth certificates, medical and security checks, and proof of legal immigration to America on behalf of the parents. The refugee organizations running the CAM program refuse to set up interviews with parents to help them reunite with their child immigrants and many parents are afraid to attract media attention to the issue for fear there will be retaliation against their kids.

As kids are forced to stay in their violent homelands, the fighting has only grown worse. In El Salvador, more people were killed in May (an average of 20 a day) than in any month since 1992. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and Guatemala is experiencing violence from two gangs with links to international organized crime organizations. Children are often the subjects of violence because they are witnesses to murders or other crimes. They are recruited to gangs as young as 8, but shelters do not accept victims of domestic abuse under the age of 12. Children under threat of such violence don’t have time for excessive paperwork or waiting times.

Critics say one flaw of the CAM program is that it is a reunification, not protection program. Therefore, families who are being targeted by gangs can not seek help. Congressional relief packages, including a US$1 billion aid package proposed by Obama to improve economic status, infrastructure, and security in the “Northern Triangle” countries, is likely to pass anytime soon. In the meantime, people in these countries-particularly children- will be waiting, in fear of violence and hope of freedom.

Jenny Wheeler

Sources: State, Irin News
Photo: Wilson Center

President Obama has called it an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The Department of Homeland Security has estimated that 52,000 youth have arrived across the border from Central and South America since October 2013. There are some as young as five, and 74 percent of all illegal youth have been coming from Central America’s Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Violence, gangs, and economic hardships run rampant throughout this area. According to a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 58 percent of the 400 youth the agency interviewed “had suffered, been threatened or feared serious harm.”

Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world ,with 90.4 people in every 100,000 being murdered. El Salvador has the next highest and Guatemala is fifth. These three countries are also among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with 30 percent of Hondurans living on less than two dollars a day.

Officials have told advocates that they expect the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border to reach 74,000 by the end of 2014. “Undocumented migrant youth is not a new challenge,” says Lori Kaplan, President and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center. “What is different about today’s crisis is the magnitude and the visibility.”

The images have been so startling that the President has asked Congress for an additional $1.4 billion to deal with the youth influx by creating a multiagency taskforce, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This will go to fund many of the shelters that will be used to house these youth until their parents or guardians can be located. Most stay in these homes awaiting their trials and then ultimately to be deported. If no relatives can be found then they will be turned over to the foster care system.

These are all short term measures for a problem that will only escalate. Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. met with the leaders of the Northern Triangle and Mexico in the hopes that he can quell the recent rumors that the U.S. was relaxing its borders and allowing women with children across.

In a speech he gave to these leaders, he said, “The United States recognizes that a key part of the solution to this problem is to address the root causes of this immigration in the first place. Especially poverty, insecurity and the lack of the rule of law, so the people can stay and thrive in their own communities.”

He went on further to say that American would be donating $255 million dollars to Central America to assist repatriation programs for deportees, improve prosecution of criminal street gang members, and expand youth programs to reduce gang recruitment.

Frederick Wood II

Sources: InterAction, PADF, Mother Jones, New York Times
Photo: Flickr