Central American Migrants Facing a Global Humanitarian Crisis
According to a new study released by Doctors Without Borders, more than two-thirds of migrants fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador left their home countries after a family member was murdered, kidnapped or disappeared.
What Does the Study Say?
The study, entitled “No Way Out,” was published earlier this month by Doctors Without Borders. It reveals that more than 40% of Guatemalan, Honduran and El Salvadoran interviewed said they fled after a family member was violently killed in the last two years. This follows a 2015 study conducted by The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which declares the situation “another protection crisis unfolding in Central America”.
This “surging tide of violence” in all three countries and parts of Mexico, sees its citizens facing gunfights, disappearances, and death threats. Interviewees in the UNHCR study described “seeing family members murdered or abducted and watching their children being forcibly recruited by those groups.”
Authorities Unable to ‘Curb the Violence’
Authorities are unable to “curb the violence and provide redress”, and are accused of widespread corruption, leading, in-part, to the humanitarian crisis.
Marta, a Doctor’s Without Borders (DWB) community worker in El Salvador said: “The police enter this community and, during enforcement operations, they beat up young people who aren’t gang members. They steal their belongings —such as money, cellphones, sound systems— and destroy their homes searching for drugs.
“Sometimes the inhabitants feel more trust towards the gangs and normalize certain situations. This makes it difficult to establish links between the institutions and the community. We are trying to raise awareness about health care and the role of the various stakeholders in this issue.”
2011-2016: 2,249% Increase in Refugees from Northern Central America
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of people from the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) who have sought refuge in surrounding countries increased by 2,249 percent, according to statistics from the UNHCR. In Guatemala and Honduras alone, there are over 2 million children out of school.
One of the most dangerous regions on earth, the UNHCR reports that, in many cases, children have had to make the journey to neighboring countries alone, making them some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees.
“During their transit through Mexico, 39.2 % were violently attacked and 27.3 % were threatened or extorted. Of those interviewed, 57.3 % had been exposed to some kind of violence along the migration route through Mexico,” the Doctors Without Borders report describes.
“The violence suffered by people living in the NTCA is comparable to that in war zones where [Doctors Without Borders] has been working for decades,” it states.
Central American Women are Particularly Vulnerable to Rape and Murder
Women refugees from Central America are also very vulnerable. Despite paying “exorbitant fees to unscrupulous ‘coyotes’” to move them into neighboring countries, women face being beaten, raped and killed on their journey.
“In my country, killing is ordinary—it is as easy as killing an insect with your shoe,” said one man from Honduras who was threatened by gang members for refusing their demand for protection money. He was later shot three times.
A Honduran patient treated by Doctors Without Borders in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, shared: “When we got off the bus, some men grabbed me and my brother and took my sister somewhere else.
“After a few hours, they released me and my brother, but not her. We still don’t know what has happened to her. We paid a US$5,000 ransom, that was all that we had, but they haven’t released her.
“I don’t know who can help us,” she added. “We don’t trust the police here. Our plan was to arrive and begin the asylum application process in the US, but now I don’t want to leave here until I know what happened to [my sister].”
Central America’s Deep History of ‘Social Inequality, Political Instability and Conflict’
DWB explains that the problem is also partly due to NCTA nations facing a deep history of “social inequality, political instability and conflict.”
In some cases, these countries have been “further destabilized by US interventions in the region over the past forty years.” Compounding this problem is the rapid rise, in the last decade, of transnational organized crime syndicates who deal with drug and human trafficking.
Additionally, new immigration policies by the United States and Mexico serve to trap Central Americans in very dangerous conditions, “with severe consequences for their physical and mental health.”
“It’s clear from years of medical data and testimonies that many of our patients are desperately fleeing violence back home,” said Sergio Martin, MSF head of mission in Mexico.
‘These People Deserve Protection and Care’
“These people deserve protection and care, and, at the very least, a fair chance to seek asylum. Instead they face more violence along the migration route, barred from countries where they wouldn’t be at risk,” Martin said. “Now they are trapped in dangerous places with no way to seek safety.”
Doctor Without Borders indicates the severe toll these unwelcoming immigration policies have on Central American refugees, particularly when detained or deported. Many such refugees are detained in terrible conditions in the US, sometimes in frigid cells “with the lights turned on 24 hours a day, with limited access to health care, and without adequate food, clothing, and blankets.”
“These policies to block people from asylum and send them back into danger have worsened the humanitarian crisis in the region,” said Marc Bosch, who oversees MSF programs in Latin America.
“The US and Mexico must end these policies and governments of the region must put people at the center of migration policies and ensure that victims of violence have access to humanitarian assistance, health services, and protection. All people, regardless of their legal status, deserve to be treated with dignity.”