Courtesy of The Guardian
Thousands of women flee their homes in parts of Central America and Mexico each year to escape armed gangs and domestic violence and seek refuge in the United States, a flow that is becoming a refugee crisis, the UN refugee agency says.
The number of women, some with children, fleeing rampant gang violence in parts of Mexico, and the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, is rising, the UNHCR said in a report published on Wednesday.
More than 66,000 children travelled with their families or alone from the Northern Triangle region – which has the world’s highest murder rates – to the United States in 2014.
More unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle and Mexico reached the United States in August than in the same month last year, the US government said.
“With authorities often unable to curb the violence and provide redress, many vulnerable women are left with no choice but to run for their lives,” Antonio Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), said in the report.
While attention is focused on the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe from countries such as Syria and Iraq, a new refugee crisis is taking shape in Central America, the UNHCR warned.
“The dramatic refugee crises we are witnessing in the world today are not confined to the Middle East or Africa,” Guterres said in a statement. “We are seeing another refugee situation unfolding in the Americas.”
The UNHCR said it had recorded a nearly five-fold increase in asylum seekers arriving in the United States from the Northern Triangle since 2008. In 2014, 40,000 people from these countries and Mexico applied for asylum in the United States.
The UNHCR report includes 160 interviews with women who had fled their homes in the Northern Triangle region and Mexico and travelled to the United States. After crossing the border illegally, they were detained and placed in detention centers.
All the women interviewed had either been recognized as refugees or been screened by US authorities, “and determined to have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture,” the report said.
One 17-year-old Salvadorian girl called Norma says she was gang raped by three members of the notorious M18 gang in a cemetery in late 2014. She said she was targeted because she was married to a police officer.
“They took their turns … they tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream,” Norma is quoted as saying in the report. Then “they threw me in the trash.”
Nearly two-thirds of the women said threats and attacks by armed criminal gangs, including rape, killings, forced recruitment of their children and extortion payments, were among the main reasons why they left their home countries.
“The increasing reach of criminal armed groups, often amounting to de facto control over territory and people, has surpassed the capacity of governments in the region to respond,” the report said.
US government figures show that 82% of 16,077 women from the Northern Triangle region and Mexico interviewed by US authorities in the last year were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture and were allowed to pursue their claims for asylum in the United States.
Violence at the hands of abusive husbands and partners, including rape and beatings with baseball bats, was another key reason why women were fleeing their homes.
“Unable to secure state protection, many women cited domestic violence as a reason for flight, fearing severe harm or death if they stayed,” the report said.