Central America lives a “human catastrophe of maximum level”, UNCHR says

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Crianças de países centro-americanos brincam em centro de apoio do ACNUR no México. Violência na região tem aumentado o número de refugiados, mas crise segue ignorada. Crédito ACNUR

Gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras caused 175,000 people to flee over the last five years. The majority being women and children. To MigraMundo, the UNCHR in Mexico said that the crisis hits “level 10”

By Victória Brotto
From Italy
Portuguese version: click here

Why so many migrant niños? , asks Irma Deras a Savadoran grandmother to three, one of whom was murdered a few metres from her house by the Maras. Maras is the name of the gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. And the murders, kindnappings and rapes committed by them are the reason why, in the last five year, 175,000 people – majority of women and children – ran from the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) to countries as Mexico and United States.  

This number, according to United Nations, has increased ten-fold between 2011 and 2016.  “The number of people fleeing violence in these countries has rise to unprecedented levels”, said to MigraMundo  by Francesca Fontanini, Public Information Officer of UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) in Mexico.

“Bang, bang, bang.I knew that it was my boy”, tells Deras putting her arms up in the air, with anger.  With her grandson’s body in her arms, she shouted to the drug dealers: “God will judge you by what you have done to my niño”. Deras’s niño  was not a member of the gang, so they murdered him.

The gangs’targets are mainly women and children. Children because they, by the law, cannot be put into prison and women because first they use them as “girlfriend”, which means they sexually abuse them and then kill them after.  According to UNCHR figures, more than 66,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in the US in 2014. In Mexico, in one year (2015-2016), the number of child asylum-seekers without parents increased 65% – in three years, 2013-2016, the growth was more than 416%.

According to the Children on the Run research, in 2014, as many as 48.6% of the children in Mexico displaced from NTCA countries cited criminal and gender-related violence as the leading cause for their displacement.

Maria snaps her fingers as she speaks of her sister Isabel. Isabel disappeared when Maria was only 6 – and she was never seen again. “We are sure that it was the Maras”, says the girl, who fled from El Salvador to Mexico with her family. “My mother was so sad for Isabel that Melody, her unborn child, was born premature, she was the size of a bird and we all were afraid she would die.” Maria’s mother “never gave up” on Isabel. She has been looking for her for three years, but we know that she will never come back”, told the girl to one of the UNCHR’s team.

Not only are their children persecuted, tortured, kidnapped and abused, but the parents also are obligated by the Maras to pay  “war taxes”. In Honduras, Priscilla’s neighbour refused to pay. Days after, she was found dead with her five children. According to the Crimes and Drugs UN Office, the percentage of murders in Honduras is the highest in the world with 90.4 murders per 100,000 people.

“On a 1-10 scale, what is the level of the human catastrophe in these NTCA countries?”, MigraMundo asked Francesca Fontanini, UNHCR’s officer. “Ten”, she stated.

But despite the maximum level of this catastrophe, tens of thousands of women and children are fleeing and are in danger for their lives, Fontanini says that this “unfolding disaster in Central America has failed to attract anything like the global attention given to the refugee crisis in Europe” The UN calls the NTCA situation a “silent and ignored crisis”.

“Closing borders and imposing restrictions only leads to more complicated and dangerous migration routes, increasing the risk for many being kidnapped, trafficked, raped, or killed”, Fontanini adds.

INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

The brutal violence and the number of refugees coming from NCTA countries caught the former north American president Barack Obama’s attention. In June 14, he called the situation a “humanitarian crisis”.

On 4th August 15,  the San Jose Action Statement was signed by Canada, US, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama – the destination countries of those refugees from NTCA. The Statement talked about improvement of the local asylum system and regional cooperation.

In 2017, the scenario changed with the new American president, Donald Trump. According to the newspaper The Guardian, Trump’s administration has cut the annual number of refugees by half, from 110, 000 to 50,000. “Entering the US as a refugee is the most difficult way oBut despite the maximum level of this catastrophe, tens of thousands of women and children are fleeing and are in danger for their lives, Fontanini says that this “unfolding disaster in Central America has failed to attract anything like the global attention given to the refugee crisis in Europe” The UN calls the NTCA situation a “silent and ignored crisis”.

“Closing borders and imposing restrictions only leads to more complicated and dangerous migration routes, increasing the risk for many being kidnapped, trafficked, raped, or killed”, Fontanini adds.

f entering the country – the process can take up to 36 months and [already] involves screenings from 12 to 15 agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and CIA,” said Jennifer Sime, head of US programmes at the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle refugees.

Another country that has seen the scenario being changed was Mexico. Before, Mexico was a country where the refugees just pass to reach the US, but now, Mexico has turned their final destination. According to UNCHR statistics, the number of children and women seeking international protection in Mexican territory has been exponentially growing. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of asylum-seekers has grown 1050%. Now, according to Fontanini, they expect more people in Mexico. “UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2017, nearly 20,000 people will apply for refugee status in Mexico, based on the current trend of a 8.3% monthly increase in asylum-seekers in Mexico since January 2015.”

COYOTES, PRISONS AND DEPORTATIONS

After having fled from deadly violence, these refugees still have faced the struggle to find money to pay the coyotes and also to survive the border crossing. Ivan had “many children”, three of whom were murdered by the local gangs. “Do you want to hear my story? Unfortunately, it is a good one”, he says, ironically. One of his children, the eldest, was murdered after finishing his night shift. The another one received a call asking him to get out the house otherwise all the family would be killed. He went outside and was shoot. “He had said the he would come back soon”, say Ivan, in tears. Another son was run over by a truck. “The police said it was an accident, but I know it was the Maras.” The three sons of Ivan refused to be part of the gang, then they too were murdered.

After all this tragedy, he and his Family needed to face journey from Guatemala to Mexico – “we do not want the other to be killed.” On the way to Mexico City, they were robbed. So they only had money to get them in Tapachula, a city on the border of Mexico. There, they were thrown into prison.  “The prison time was a torture for us, because we were fleeing from the Maras and now we were in their territory. They could easily find us.”

The situation of refugees being put into prison is a number which hits in the thousands. According to UN, 214,000 refugees were put into prison in Mexico and the US and then sent back to their countries in 2016.

“After surviving perilous and traumatic journeys to finally reach a safe country, refugees and asylum seekers must find a welcoming environment in which their rights are respected, and aid to meet their basic needs”, states Fontanini.  All governments in the region and beyond must keep their borders open, to ensure access to safety for people in need of international protection, and provide open asylum systems and livelihood initiatives for asylum seekers and refugees.”

Maria also lives in Mexico and goes to a centre which supports refugee children. She likes drawing in her notebook that she brought from El Salvador – one of the few things that she took from her home. The girl, now 14 years of age, dreams to live in Japan,  study graphic drawing and be an architect. About the serious business of life, Maria wants an aquarium and to collect blue crabs.

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