While all eyes have been on the Mediterranean migrant crisis, women and children from Central America and Mexico are also fleeing their homes and seeking refuge. A recent report from the UNHCR reveals the scale of gang violence, death threats and sexual abuse that women in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala endure.
“Gunfights, dead bodies and extortion”
Salvadoran wife and mother, known as Norma in the report, left her home country after a traumatic sexual assault and persistent threats from gang members. Gunfights, dead bodies and extortion payments were part of Norma’s every day life in her neighborhood in El Salvador.
In 2014, gang members abducted Norma, the wife of a police officer. They took her to a cemetery where three gang members tied her up, stuffed her mouth to muffle her screams and raped her.
Filing a police report only put Norma in more danger. She fled to another part of the country and changed her phone number, but threats against Norma and her children persisted.
Nearly 40,000 women with children from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were apprehended at the U.S. border from October 2014 to September 2015. Another 40,000 minors from these four countries were apprehended during this period.
Because of violence, threats and sexual assault these women experience, many are eligible for legal protection under international law.
However, the report notes that the governments in Central America’s Northern Triangle (NTCA) and Mexico often do not have the capacity, resources or institutions to protect their own citizens.
“The growing refugee situation originating from the NTCA and Mexico requires a comprehensive regional approach,” the report states. “Governments have a duty to manage migration, and must do so using policies that protect human lives and ensure that individuals fleeing persecution can find safety, acknowledging that border security and refugee protection are not mutually exclusive.”
When Norma felt her home country could not provide her this protection, she fled to the U.S. She was then detained like thousands of other women and children from Central America and Mexico.
The report interviewed 160 women from April to September 2015 who had passed a credible fear screening in the U.S., meaning a judge declared they have a potential legal case for asylum. More than 90 percent of the women interviewed were being held in detention.
The women revealed two types of violence prevalent in their countries of origin that caused them to fear for their lives: violence by criminal groups and domestic violence.
The report recommends improving home countries’ ability to provide safe haven for their citizens, addressing the root causes of migration and enforcing international protections for asylum seekers.
One anonymous Salvadoran woman has another recommendation: “The U.S. government should listen closely to the stories of people fleeing their countries, because they are leaving out of great necessity.”