BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rampant domestic violence is forcing women to flee their homes in Central America, the U.N. refugee agency said, as it urged governments to work together to address the reasons for migration in the region.
Every year hundreds and thousands of people, including women and children traveling alone, leave the ‘Northern Triangle’ nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to escape gang violence and poverty.
Most head north to the United States to seek refuge and a better life.
“There is a hidden refugee crisis within these movements of people from Central America,” said Volker Turk, assistant high commissioner for protection at the U.N. refugee agency (UNCHR), following a recent visit to the Northern Triangle nations.
He said an important - and often overlooked - factor is domestic violence, with women running for their lives to escape violent relationships in a region known for its high levels of gender-related violence and killings.
“I met people from all three countries where domestic violence was a huge, huge issue,” Turk told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
“I met a woman whose face was disfigured and she had gone through years of beatings and domestic abuse. Then her husband also got involved in criminal activities, and at the end of the day she saved her children by fleeing,” he said.
Under the U.N. 1951 refugee convention persecution and crimes against women because of their gender, such as rape, are criteria for which women and their children can claim asylum.
Yet it is only in the last decade that some countries in the Americas have introduced gender-based crimes and persecution in their national laws as grounds for asylum claims.
“I’ve met people who really had absolutely horrific circumstances, which included suppression, exploitation and domestic violence, and if the state is not able to respond to that need to protect women and or her children, indeed they are eligible for refugee protection,” Turk said.
No figures exist to show how many women from the Northern Triangle countries are claiming asylum or have been granted refugee status because of domestic violence, Turk said.
But he estimated hundreds of women and their children have been granted asylum in Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States, among other countries in the Americas, on such grounds.
UNHCR said growing numbers of people from Central America are seeking refuge from gang and domestic violence in Mexico, and in other Latin American countries.
Gangs use extortion, sexual violence against women and girls, killings and forced recruitment of children to control entire city neighborhoods, Turk said.
“I saw the anxiety and fear in their eyes. The people I met, they flee for their lives for good reasons,” he said.
Last year, Mexico received almost 9,000 new asylum applications, up 156 percent from 2015, according to the UNHCR.
Since January 2015, the number of asylum applications in Mexico has increased by more than eight percent per month. Based on this trend, UNHCR expects at least 20,000 more asylum claims to be filed in Mexico during this year.
The flow of migrants and refugees from Central America will continue unless the underlying causes are tackled, Turk said.
“Sometimes its abject poverty, sometimes its control by non-state entities .. it’s gangs or organized crime groups and it’s also domestic violence,” he said.
“There is almost an exclusive focus on security, security security .. for us what is key is a matching of the security and law enforcement side with a human development side and a protection of people side.”
UNHCR urged greater cooperation among countries in the Americas to better protect refugees.
“It’s increasingly clear that the solution to any of this is not going to lie only in one country,” Turk said.