Official border point from Guatemala to Mexico. Guatemala is a gateway for refugees fleeing Central America and heading north to the United States. Official border point from Guatemala to Mexico. Guatemala is a gateway for refugees fleeing Central America and heading north to the United States. Photo credit: UNHCR/Tito Herrera
Strengthening state and regional responses to Central America’s forced displacement crisis
by Giovanni Bassu June 2017

Between 2011 and 2016, 161,742 citizens from the Northern Triangle of Central American (NTCA) applied for asylum. These numbers are continuing to rise, with a 53% increase in asylum applications from NTCA citizens between 2015 and the first half of 2016. Whilst the majority look to go to the United States, many are also choosing Mexico, or heading south to Panama, where rates have doubled in the past year, and Costa Rica, which has seen a threefold increase in asylum applications. In 2014, the plight of tens of thousands of women and children from the NTCA arriving at the US–Mexican border, many unaccompanied, overwhelmed local border patrols and prompted then President Barack Obama to declare an ‘urgent humanitarian situation’.

There are a number of causes of this human flight, but the levels of violence that the region is experiencing is clearly one of them. There have been over 150,000 homicides in the three NTCA countries combined since 2006, an average of 50 per 100,000 people. This is ten times higher than the US homicide rate, and five times the threshold for an epidemic (10 per 100,000) established by the World Health Organisation.

A humanitarian crisis

Gangs and other violent non-state actors have a strong territorial presence in all three NTCA countries. In El Salvador, for instance, 247 of the country’s 262 municipalities have a significant gang presence, and 70% of businesses are subject to extortion.+Óscar Martínez, Efren Lemus, Carlos Martínez and Deborah Sontag, ‘La mafia de pobres que desangra El Salvador’, El Faro, 20 November 2016. Gangs exercise a high level of control over the communities in which they operate: anyone disobeying their orders, or showing any affiliation, perceived or actual, with a rival gang or group, is dealt with harshly, often resulting in serious injury or death. Entire families are targeted. Access to basic public services is circumscribed by invisible borders between rival gangs, forcing many into life-threatening situations simply to reach their clinic or school.

Young boys are eyed early on for recruitment into the local gang, whilst young girls are recruited as the ‘girlfriends’ of gang members. The use of schools as recruiting grounds forces many children to drop out of education. In Honduras, drop-out rates reached over 10% in 2016. Resisting recruitment means defying the gang’s authority, with consequences for the whole family. Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities are also extremely vulnerable and subjected to routine discrimination and persecution.

Forced displacement

Violence forces people from their homes as they look for a safe place to hide whilst things cool down. Often, however, fleeing internally is not enough, as non-state actors operate nationally, and can easily track their victims down. As a result, many are forced to leave their countries and seek protection abroad. Growing acceptance of the genuine protection needs of people fleeing the NTCA is reflected in increasing recognition rates for asylum-seekers, up by 41% to 31,900 between 2014 and 2015. This supports UNHCR’s view that victims of gang violence fall under the purview of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.+‘Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Victims of Organized Gangs’.

Refugees face serious dangers along the route. Given the difficulties involved in leaving safely, many have to use smugglers, who charge significant sums. Part of wider transnational criminal networks, smugglers provide ‘protection’ against kidnapping, but those who refuse to pay for such protection can end up kidnap victims themselves, or disappear en route. Even when people do pay, they can be sold to other traffickers and made to pay for their onward journey in different ways. Women are at constant threat of sexual exploitation and abuse, including being sold into prostitution.

When they eventually arrive in their country of asylum refugees find systems severely overstretched. Individuals in need of protection are left for months and even years in legal limbo, often without access to work or in administrative detention as they await a decision on their asylum application. Many lack access to representation during complex legal processes, and can face arbitrary and expedited removal proceedings. The result is that many actual or would-be asylum seekers are deported. Once deportees arrive back in their country of origin, they cannot return to their homes due to the persecution and violence that caused them to flee in the first place, and so become internally displaced once again. They effectively become locked into a perpetual cycle of displacement. Friends and family may not even know that they are back, since making contact risks them being identified and killed.

Deportatation and refoulement

Annual rates of return from the United States and Mexico to NTCA countries have increased by 82% over the past five years. In 2015 alone, 234,561 people were deported. Whilst not all of these people tried to access the asylum system in Mexico or the United States, or have international protection needs, a significant proportion do.+UNHCR, ‘Women on the Run’, http://www.unhcr.org/publications/operations/5630f24c6/women-run.html; UNHCR, ‘Children on the Run’, http://www.unhcr.org/children-on-the-run.html. According to official figures in El Salvador, 30% of the children and 26% of the adults returned from Mexico in 2016 reported leaving the country because of insecurity; in total, between 2012 and 2016 more than 20,300 deportees cited insecurity as their main reason for leaving the country.

International law is clear on the prohibition of refoulement, which can be broadly understood as the return of a refugee or asylumseeker to a territory where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.+Art. 33(1) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that ‘No contracting state shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. The more expansive definition in the Cartagena Declaration refers to ‘serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order’. This applies to people in need of international protection irrespective of whether they have formally applied for asylum or not, especially if their intention to do so has been thwarted because they have not been given the information they need to access the asylum procedure. It also applies to people facing practical or other barriers to entry to the asylum system, some of which are clearly present in the region.

Strengthening state responses

Whilst the long-term solution to forced displacement caused by violence lies in investment and socio-economic development in the NTCA, a number of urgent measures are needed to prevent and mitigate its humanitarian consequences. Since the primary responsibility for providing protection rests with states, it is essential to strengthen the state response, both to the crimes being committed, and to the victims of those crimes.

Official recognition of forced internal displacement resulting from violence is a necessary first step, as is adopting consequent laws and policies in line with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Honduras has now officially recognised the phenomenon and its scale; the country created an Inter-institutional Commission for the Protection of Persons Displaced by Violence in 2013, and conducted an extensive profiling exercise in 2014 to understand the scale of displacement and its dynamics. The study found an estimated population size of 41,000 IDP households, amounting to 174,000 individuals. The Commission, with UNHCR’s support, is working on a comprehensive IDP law, and is proposing a series of public policies to prevent displacement and protect the displaced.

Whilst El Salvador does not recognise internal displacement per se, and no official numbers exist on its scale, a government study is under way, with UNHCR support. In the meantime, El Salvador has enacted a number of public policies under the framework of the ‘Plan El Salvador Seguro’ aimed at increasing citizen security. Some measures are specifically designed to support and assist victims of violence, including people forced to flee their homes. An amendment to the Penal Code on ‘Illegal limits to freedom of movement’, which criminalises conduct causing internal displacement, while still not calling it as such, is a step in the right direction, and a key priority now is implementation and enforcement.

Finally, in Guatemala an academic study on internal displacement is being finalised, which will help gauge the scale of the phenomenon and provide important inputs to develop policies.

Responding to immediate protection needs

Institutional strengthening and legislative work is a slow process and cannot bring protection in the short term to the increasing number of people who need it. As such, it is vitally important to build civil society networks that can provide immediate and consistent assistance and protection. This involves supporting networks of safe houses, providing relief items and opening channels of safe evacuation when necessary. Organisations such as UNHCR are supporting such mechanisms, in close coordination with civil society groups in these countries.

For people who have decided to leave through their own means, it is equally important to ensure that they have a safe and dignified journey. Networks of civil society, together with international organisations such as UNHCR, have set up a number of interconnected ‘migrant houses’ offering a ‘safe space’ to sleep and rest along the way, and providing services such as legal advice and psychosocial support. Through such means, refugees and other vulnerable people are informed on safe routes, how to access asylum systems and their rights.

Another essential component is strengthening asylum systems in the region. UNHCR is, by mandate, leading efforts to ensure that states have a fair and effective asylum procedure from the moment asylum-seekers and refugees cross a border. This includes informing the relevant authorities in countries of asylum of the situation in the NTCA and the protection needs of people fleeing these countries, as well as guidance on how to assess claims made by victims of organised gangs.

Strengthening asylum systems should minimise cases of refoulement, but in the meantime it is imperative to ensure that effective identification mechanisms exist in reception centres for deportees in countries of origin. Again, this is primarily a state responsibility, but at this stage it must be complemented by civil society support to ensure that, once identified, individuals with protection needs are provided with an effective response. One such response, which UNHCR has been working with, is to negotiate the readmission of a (limited) number of cases to the countries of asylum they were deported from.

The importance of regional cooperation

If we are to find solutions to current humanitarian challenges, countries of origin, transit and asylum must work together. It was in this spirit that governments in the region came together in Costa Rica in July 2016. Building on the approach and commitments made in the 2014 Brazil Plan of Action, they adopted the San Jose Action Statement, aimed at strengthening the protection of people fleeing violence in the NTCA. Together with representatives of international organisations, civil society and academia, governments pledged to prevent and address the root causes of the violence, enhance asylum and protection responses and promote regional cooperation.

Such a coordinated, comprehensive regional approach foreshadows the UN General Assembly’s New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants adopted in September 2016, and ticks many of the boxes of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) contained in Annex 1 of the Declaration. The CRRF seeks to tackle large-scale displacement crises in a whole of society, multi-stakeholder approach, bridging the gap between short-term humanitarian and long-term development responses through multi-year integrated programming. A follow-up meeting to the San Jose Action Statement is planned for this year and will be an important opportunity to review the progress made so far, and build on and operationalise the commitments made in San Jose, and bring them fully in line with the New York Declaration.

Giovanni Bassu is Deputy Regional Representative for Protection in UNHCR’s Regional Office for Central America, Mexico and Cuba.

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