SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Death threats, violence, extortion and gang recruitment of minors are just some of the reasons thousands of Central Americans are fleeing their countries in search of refuge, according to the Asylum Trends 2013 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The majority of asylum requests were made by Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans, who come from an area known as Central America’s Northern Tier, according to Rebeca Cenalmor-Rejas, an associate legal officer for UNHCR in Panama.
“According to the information received from countries that offer asylum, there’s a direct relationship between the rise in crime and other situations of violence in the region, and the increase in forced displacement,” she said.
Last year, 15,694 asylum requests were made by Central Americans to other countries throughout the world, including 6,604 by Salvadorans, 5,076 by Guatemalans and 4,014 by Hondurans. In 2012, there were 12,748 requests, including 5,566 by Salvadorans, 4,390 by Guatemalans and 2,792 by Hondurans.
“The numbers [of refugees] have been increasing since 2008 and go up every year,” said Fernando Protti, UNHCR’s regional representative for Mexico, Central America and Cuba. “It’s a very significant increase.”
The countries that receive the greatest number of requests for asylum are the United States, Canada and Mexico, though requests to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama are rising, according to UNHCR.
However, in many receiving countries, such as Mexico and Nicaragua, the immigration processes are long and arduous, according to Kiriam Nuila, the coordinator for the Anglican Program for Attention to Refugees (PARES) in El Salvador.
“Asylum seekers not only have to face the reasons they were forced to flee their countries, they also face discrimination, difficulties in obtaining identification documents and the lack of formal employment in their host countries,” she said.
Laly Vargas experienced this predicament firsthand. She left Colombia 12 years ago, fleeing the narco-trafficking violence in Bogotá and settling in El Salvador, another violent country, because it was the only country in the world that didn’t require an entry visa.
“From one day to the next, I had to flee along with my husband and 3-year-old son,” Vargas, 41, said. “We arrived not knowing anybody, staying in cheap hotels, begging on the streets, being discriminated against for being Colombian and without employment opportunities or a safe place to stay.”
Her husband, Jaime Vargas, said they still have difficulty finding work, opening bank accounts, renting a house and getting formal employment.
“Though we now have Salvadoran resident’s permits, we always have problems because our permits say we are refugees, so people discriminate against us because they think we have done something wrong [because we are Colombian], ” he said. “But that’s not the case: We have rights – the same as the citizens of the country that offered us asylum.”
The main challenge in requesting asylum is proving the existence of violence or threats, as receiving countries always check for legal proceedings initiated by the applicants, according to Ana Irma Rodas, the director of the Returned Migrants Reinsertion Program of El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“It is important to realize that many people move to other countries seeking refuge as a result of gang violence in the Northern Tier, but when they are interviewed, they often lack some required documentation or proof,” she said. “Before leaving their country, some of them file complaints or press charges but many don’t.”
On March 18, the Central American Integration System (SICA) held a regional workshop titled “Introduction to forced displacement and protection measures” in San Salvador, attempting to share experiences and reinforce refugee protection mechanisms.
“We feel it’s urgent to establish a national legal framework to protect people who are seeking asylum,” Juan José García, the vice minister for Salvadorans Living Abroad, said. “This must be a top priority, as it will allow us to adapt our laws to the new realities of our region, where migration is very often linked to crime and violence.”
On April 7, SICA and UNHCR signed an agreement to compile statistical information on forced displacement and encourage refugee protection projects.
“We hope the agreement will lead to [the creation of] approved legislation and policies and joint action in matters of refugee protection, such as the immediate issuing of identification cards,” Nuila said.
The next step is a sub-regional meeting between Central American countries and the Dominican Republic which will take place on July 9 and 10 in Nicaragua, as part of the commemorative acts for the 30th Anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (Cartagena+30).
“The meeting will address the protection frameworks applicable to displaced people and share proposals for best practices for the protection of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced people,” Cenalmor-Rejas said.