A new United Nations report highlights skyrocketing rates of forced displacement in Central America's Northern Triangle region, attributing the trend in large part to rampant organized crime related violence. In its latest annual Global Trends report (pdf), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the number of asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador rose from 20,900 in 2012 to 109,800 in 2015 -- a more than five-fold increase.
The report suggests a toxic mix of local gangs and transnational drug trafficking groups is driving much of the displacement.
"Violence and persecution generated by transnational organized crime, gang-related violence, and drug cartels in some parts of Central America are likely to be the primary cause behind the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers from Central America seeking international protection in the United States of America," the report reads.
The most common destination for Northern Triangle refugees is the United States, where 18,900 asylum seekers from El Salvador registered in 2015, 16,400 from Guatemala and 14,300 from Honduras.
[Refugees’] flight from danger is becoming increasingly common in El Salvador, where the gangs’ criminal activities include murder, extortion, kidnap and rape, and now impact people from all walks of life. Victims range from school children and bus drivers to business owners, police officers and their families, leaving a growing number with no option but to flee, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are seeking asylum throughout Central America and Mexico according to the UNHCR which is calling for urgent action:
[L]ast year alone 3,423 people, most of them from El Salvador and Honduras, sought asylum in Mexico. This was 164 per cent increase over 2013 and a 65 per cent increase since 2014. Asylum claims by Salvadorans were up almost four times over this period. Mexico currently hosts 3,448 refugees, the majority of them from Central America.
The number of asylum claims in other parts of the region from people fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - the “Northern Triangle of Central America” - has also risen dramatically. Costa Rica, for example, registered 2,203 asylum claims in 2015 - a 176 per cent increase over 2013 and a 16 per cent increase since 2014. These were mainly people arriving from El Salvador. Costa Rica today hosts 3,616 refugees.\
As in previous years, preliminary data from 2015 shows that the United States remains the main country receiving asylum applications from the Northern Triangle, on track to receive over 250 per cent more than in 2013 and almost twice the number of 2014.
“UNHCR considers the current situation in Central America to be a protection crisis. We are particularly concerned about the rising numbers of unaccompanied children and women on the run who face forced recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual- and gender-based violence and murder,” [UNHCR spokesperson Adrian] Edwards told journalists.
In Belize, where the population is less than 400,000, 633 people sought asylum in 2015, up ten-fold over 2014.
“Other countries in the region, notably Nicaragua and Panama, are also seeing similar sharp increases in asylum requests from people fleeing the Northern Triangle countries,” Edwards added.And the figures above are only the counts of people who have formally sought some type of asylum or refugee status after fleeing the Northern Triangle. There are certainly many thousands more who have fled undocumented and fearful to the US and elsewhere.
The UNHCR has tried to humanize the crisis with personal stories of Central American refuees like Ada from El Salvador:
Other Salvadoran refugees whose stories have been featured by the UNHCR include a family of tailors and a transgender Salvadoran woman who fled after a brutal stabbing.
Many have called the current level of violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America akin to a war. Like every other war, those who flee deserve the help and compassion of the rest of the world.