MSF: Countries slam the door on people fleeing violence in Central America

In this Dec. 6, 2016 photo, migrants share an evening meal inside La 72, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco state, Mexico. More Central American migrants are asking for asylum in Mexico. (Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

A new report has called on the U.S., Mexico and Canada to increase their formal resettlement and family reunification quotas for refugees fleeing “extreme violence” in Central America.

The study, released Thursday by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), stated that migrants and refugees from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are wrongly treated as economic migrants in countries of refuge.

“Despite facing some of the worst violence in the world today, migrants and refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America still have an extremely difficult time being granted asylum or refugee status in the U.S. or Mexico,” MSF-USA Executive Director Jason Cone said in a press call.

He added that the number of undocumented migrants from this region in Mexico has grown over the last five years. In 2011, around 61,334 people were detained in Mexico, while in 2015 that number rose to 152,231. The vast majority were deported, and some migrants were turned back to their home countries in less than 36 hours.

“Lack of access to the asylum and humanitarian visa processes, lack of coordination between different governmental agencies, fear of retaliation in case of official denunciation to a prosecutor, expedited deportation procedures that do not consider individual exposure to violence: These are just some of the reasons for the gap between rights and reality,” according to the report.

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The report, which is based on surveys and medical data from the last two years, is the most comprehensive medical data available on migrants traveling through the region. The findings illustrate war-like levels of violence pushing people from their homes and making them vulnerable to further abuses while traveling to the U.S.

Of the 467 people interviewed by MSF, almost 40 percent mentioned direct attacks or threats to themselves or their families, and extortion or gang-forced recruitment as the main reasons for fleeing their countries.

Refugees from El Salvador reported some of the highest levels of violence. Some 56 percent of Salvadorans surveyed had a relative who died in the violence in the last two years, while 55 percent had been victims of blackmail or extortion – significantly higher than respondents from Honduras or Guatemala.

But the violence does not end once migrants leave home. MSF stated that nearly 70 percent of the migrant population entering Mexico reported being victims of violence during their trek toward the U.S. Many told harrowing stories involving the murder of family members, kidnapping, threats, forced recruitment by non-state armed actors, extortion, sexual violence and forced disappearance.

One Salvadoran father of four, whom Cone met on a recent visit to Mexico, said he refused to extort his employers on behalf of a gang. As a result, his family received death threats and were forced to flee their home.

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Another victim of violence, a 27-year-old lesbian woman from Honduras, was forced to abandon her child and flee her home after being raped and ostracized by her family. She was later hunted by gangs because of her sexual orientation.

“Their stories are painfully normal,” Cone said. “The extreme violence inflicted on migrants and refugees has become normalized to such an extent that often in the mental health consultations, patients will leave out the fact that they’d been abducted, simply because they had been provided food during their captivity.”

Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, according to the report. Nearly a third of women surveyed upon entering Mexico reported having experienced sexual abuse. Victims said their perpetrators “included members of gangs and other criminal organizations, as well as members of the Mexican security forces responsible for their protection.”

The charity found that women and young girls fleeing the Northern Triangle often start birth control before their journey, knowing they will most likely be sexually abused or forced to transact sexual favors in order to cross borders.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com