Central America Sees Big Rise in Refugees Seeking Asylum

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Violence in Central America has prompted a spike in the number of refugees from the isthmus seeking asylum, raising the question of how countries in the region can confront this seemingly interminable crisis.  

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 3,423 people asked for asylum in Mexico in 2015, a 65 percent increase from the previous year. Most of the petitions came from Honduran and Salvadoran nationals, with the number of Salvadorans seeking asylum in Mexico increasing four-fold between 2013 to 2015.

The United States also saw a big increase between 2014 and 2015, receiving twice as many asylum applications from the Northern Triangle region — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Other Central American nations are registering similiar increases. Costa Rica saw a 16 percent rise in asylum petitions between 2014 and 2015, while Belize saw a ten-fold increase during the same time period. Increases were also registered in Nicaragua and Panama, although the UNHCR has not released precise figures for those countries.  

The UNHCR is particularly concerned about the number of women and children refugees “who face forced recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual- and gender-based violence and murder,” spokesperson Adrian Edwards said during a press conference in Geneva. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Central America’s refugee crisis is one fomented by gangs and exploited by other criminal groups. Forced from their homes by huge risks associated with living among violent gangs, they are often victimized along the way by criminal groups that routinely extort, rape, and kidnap migrants. In some ways, it has become the world’s forgotten migrant crisis as media attention fixes on the record number of asylum seekers in Europe.

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The US plans to work with the UN in creating several offices in the Northern Triangle where people can apply for asylum in the US before they make the journey. This policy shift comes after the US saw an unprecedented wave of unaccompanied child migrants apprehended at its southern border between 2013 to 2015. That focused US attention on the issue of Northern Triangle gang violence causing children and women to flee. 

But US-bound migrants fleeing Central American violence is hardly a new phenomenon. Cold War conflict in El Salvador led to Los Angeles, California’s Salvadoran population outnumbering that any city in El Salvador, except the capital, San Salvador. 

The current increase in Salvadoran asylum-seekers applying for refuge in Mexico is not surprising, given that El Salvador is now the most violent nation in the Western Hemisphere, and that Mexico is increasingly taking on the job of stopping migrants from reaching the US border. 

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