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Home Sweet Home? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador’s role in a deepening refugee crisis

Central America turns its back on hundreds of thousands fleeing ‘war-like’ violence

Governments in Central America are fuelling a deepening refugee crisis by failing to tackle rampant violence and sky-high homicide rates in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras which are forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, Amnesty International said in a new report today.

Home Sweet Home? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador’s role in a deepening refugee crisis explores how the three countries are failing to protect people from violence, and also failing to set up a comprehensive protection plan for deportees forced by countries such as Mexico and the USA to return to life-threatening situations.

“El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have become virtual war zones where lives seem to be expendable and millions live in constant terror at what gang members or public security forces can do to them or their loved ones. These millions are now the protagonists in one of the world’s least visible refugee crises,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International.

“Although countries like Mexico and the USA are utterly failing to protect Central American asylum seekers and refugees, it is high time for authorities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to own up to their role in this crisis and take steps to tackle the problems that force these people to leave home in the first place.”

“Millions of Central Americans are falling through the cracks, victims of countries that do not fulfil their responsibility to provide the international protection they need, and of their own governments’ utter inability and unwillingness to keep them safe from the most tragic end.”

Amnesty International USA has asked President Obama to designate Guatemala for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) and re-designate El Salvador and Honduras for Temporary Protected Status because of the devastating increase in violence that has led to an acute humanitarian emergency in these countries. This will grant protection to people from those countries who have fled the violence of these emergency situations and are already present in the United States.

“We can no longer turn our backs on the refugee crisis in our own backyard by sending desperate people back to certain danger,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Rather than treating refugees and asylum-seekers as criminals, we must offer protection to those who pose no threat and who have done nothing other than seek safety for themselves and their loved ones.”

Record-breaking violence

Homicide rates in El Salvador have escalated dramatically in the past three years as people are increasingly caught up in ruthless fights between rival gangs trying to assert control over territories.

Murder rates in Guatemala and Honduras are also among the highest on earth.

The United Nations has ranked El Salvador as one of the deadliest countries on earth outside of a war zone, with more than 108 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015.

In Honduras the rate was 63.75 and in Guatemala it was 34.99 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Young people are the hardest hit by violence, with more than half of those killed in the three countries in 2015 under 30 years of age.

Young boys often join the gangs under duress, while girls are forced to become gangsters’ “girlfriends” and are often sexually abused.

Shop owners and bus drivers are routinely extorted and forced to pay “taxes” to the gangs controlling their area. Those who fail to follow the strict unwritten rules of conduct are often abused or killed.

Many young children across the three countries told Amnesty International they had quit school for fear of gang members and now have to spend all day at home.

The Salvadoran Ministry of Education has been reported as saying that 39,000 students left school due to harassment or threats by gangs in 2015 – three times the figure in 2014 (13,000). The teachers’ union said they believed the real number could be more than 100,000.

In some cases, teenagers are harassed and attacked by the security forces, accused of being part of a gang.

Sixteen-year-old Andrés (not his real name) is living in hiding in El Salvador after being arrested in May by security forces. He told Amnesty International they tortured him to confess to participating in a shootout and being a lookout for gangs in what seems a desperate attempt to show officials are trying to tackle the shocking levels of violent crime in the country.

He said the soldiers poured bottles of water into his mouth and nose, put his head in a puddle, stuffed sand into his mouth, jumped on his stomach, then kicked, punched and threatened to kill him unless he confessed.

His mother complained to the authorities about her son’s treatment and an investigation has been opened.

Andrés is now constantly moving from house to house, afraid the men who abused him will find him, and is desperate to leave the country. 

No protection

Relentless violence has led to a surge in asylum applications from Central American citizens in Mexico, the United States and other countries, reaching levels not seen since the region’s armed conflicts ended decades ago.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of asylum applications from people coming from the three countries has increased more than six times in the past five years, particularly in neighbouring countries and in the United States.

But despite overwhelming evidence that many asylum-seekers face extreme violence and potentially death if they are not granted asylum, deportations from Mexico, the USA and elsewhere have increased. The number of Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans deported from Mexico increased by nearly 180 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Sent back home to be killed

For Saúl, it is too late. The 35-year-old father of five was murdered in his native Honduras less than three weeks after he was sent back home from Mexico in July 2016 when his asylum application was rejected.

A bus driver – one of the most dangerous professions in Honduras due to the control gangs assert over the industry – Saúl fled the country in November 2015 after he survived a shooting along with his two sons, who were severely injured. The police failed to follow up on his report or offer him protection.

When Amnesty International spoke to Saúl in July, his final words were, “I feel like something is going to happen again, maybe to me.”

His wife and sons are now living in terror of what might happen to them.

Government officials in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were unable to confirm to Amnesty International how the US$750 million earmarked for the region as part of the US-backed Plan for Prosperity would be used to help deportees whose lives are at risk. The plan is aimed at tackling the root causes of migration as a way to stem the migrant flow and protect those who are deported back.

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have set up official reception centers for deportees. Deportees have to go through a short interview where a migration official asks them about any abuse they might have suffered during the journey. They are rarely asked about the violence they were fleeing in their own countries and any needs for protection they might have.

“Reception programs for deportees are a bad joke. A shiny building, a warm meal and a welcome banner will not keep these people safe from the horrors that await them back home,” said Shetty. 

“Instead, what we need to see is an effective region-wide initiative to invest the international aid they are receiving into tackling what causes so many people to desperately flee their homes.”

“Unless Central American leaders address the shocking current levels of violence in their countries, the region risks plunging back into its darkest times. Instead of stubbornly denying people are running away from violence, those in power should focus their efforts on trying to find solutions to it.”