Guatemalan network welcomes those fleeing gang violence

Deputy High Commissioner hails shelters that provide protection for the most vulnerable people on the move in Central America.

Andrés is coordinator of a centre in El Ceibo, Guatemala, that helps people fleeing gang violence, pictured here in September 2016.  © UNHCR/Tito Herrera

EL CEIBO, Guatemala - For nearly a decade, Andrés Toribio and his wife opened their home on the Guatemala-Mexico border to provide shelter and protection for people fleeing violence in Central America, knowing that the route to safety can be dangerous.

As they flee violent gangs, or maras, at home, asylum-seekers can become vulnerable to human trafficking and kidnapping rings, and can fall prey to sexual violence or robbery along the way.

Today, Toribio is the coordinator of a new centre run by the Pastoral de Movilidad Humana organization in Guatemala that opened last month in the town of El Ceibo with support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“With the new centre we can help more people,” said Toribio, adding that in the first few week of operation, the Casa del Migrante El Ceibo assisted 64 asylum-seekers and other vulnerable people.

“We help refugees and migrants, we inform them of their right to request asylum and we give them lodging and food,” he said.

The shelter is part of a network of safe spaces run by local organizations and supported by UNHCR, which Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements visited during a trip to northern Central America last month. Clements visited Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, which are all affected by violence and a growing tide of people on the move.

“Listening to their voices is a profoundly moving experience.”

“We traced the footsteps of what many asylum seekers and migrants do every day to try to seek international protection in Mexico,” Clements said, speaking at the Guatemala-Mexico border.

“Listening to their voices is always a profoundly moving experience and a powerful reminder of the responsibility we all share to ensure they are protected and we find solutions to their displacement.”

In an effort to promote safety for those on the move, UNHCR is campaigning for countries of transit and asylum to establish networks of safe spaces, offering short-term shelter and humanitarian assistance. Through interviews and psycho-social support, people who need international protection can be identified and provided with information about how to apply for asylum and seek protection.

UN Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements visits the newly opened Casa del Migrante shelter in the border town of El Ceibo, Guatemala.   © UNHCR/Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo

Guatemalan civil society groups have been in the vanguard of coordinating a network of safe spaces which includes eight shelters and 12 information points, with the support of UNHCR. They include one space that deals exclusively with unaccompanied children and another for the LGBTI community in need of international protection.

“I applaud the work of our partners to grow and strengthen the safe spaces network and the special attention they are able to give to children, women and girls and the LGBTI community,” said Clements.

More than 24,000 people have received assistance from the Guatemalan network, 15 per cent of whom fled their home countries because of the violence of the maras and criminal organizations, and because of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

“The solution will come by dealing with reasons people flee.”

Increasingly, those in need of protection are deciding to seek asylum in Guatemala rather than continuing to Mexico or the United States. Applications in the Central American country increased by 66 per cent between 2014 and 2017. Applications by Hondurans and Salvadorans increased by 47 per cent in 2017 compared with the previous year. In December 2017, Guatemala was hosting 370 refugees of 12 different nationalities.

“UNHCR commends Guatemala for generously welcoming refugees even while it faces its own challenges, and for being part of a crucial regional approach to addressing the root causes of the violence that leads so many people to flee from their home countries,” said Clements.

Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Panama have agreed to cooperate to strengthen protection systems and work with development agencies to provide assistance and ways to respond to displacement, sharing experience and good practice.

This process, known as the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework, is part of the broader global compact on refugees which aims to transform the way the international community deals with refugee crises.

The global compact is designed to tackle the gaps in the international system for protecting refugees through more predictable and equitable support for the countries and communities that host them.

“Ultimately the solution to displacement in Central America will come by dealing with reasons people flee,” Clements said. 

Meanwhile, Toribio will continue to welcome weary refugees and migrants in El Ceibo as they make their way to safety.