UNHCR calls for urgent action as Central America asylum claims soar
GENEVA, April 5 (UNHCR) – The UN Refugee Agency today called for urgent action to help hundreds of people fleeing violence in Central America that has surged to levels not seen since the region was wracked by armed conflicts in the 1980s.
"Action is urgently needed to ensure that unaccompanied children and others receive the protection to which they are entitled," UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told a press briefing in Geneva.
He detailed that last year alone 3,423 people, most of them from El Salvador and Honduras, sought asylum in Mexico. This was a 164 per cent increase over 2013 and a 65 per cent increase since 2014. Asylum claims by Salvadorans were up almost four times over this period. Mexico currently hosts 3,448 refugees, the majority of them from Central America.
The number of asylum claims in other parts of the region from people fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – the "Northern Triangle of Central America" – has also risen dramatically. Costa Rica, for example, registered 2,203 asylum claims in 2015, a 176 per cent increase over 2013 and a 16 per cent increase since 2014. These were mainly people arriving from El Salvador. Costa Rica today hosts 3,616 refugees.
As in previous years, preliminary data from 2015 shows that the United States remains the main country receiving asylum applications from the Northern Triangle, on track to receive over 250 per cent more than in 2013 and almost twice the number of 2014.
"UNHCR considers the current situation in Central America to be a protection crisis. We are particularly concerned about the rising numbers of unaccompanied children and women on the run who face forced recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual- and gender-based violence and murder," Edwards told journalists.
In Belize, where the population is less than 400,000, 633 people sought asylum in 2015, up ten-fold over 2014.
"Other countries in the region, notably Nicaragua and Panama, are also seeing similar sharp increases in asylum requests from people fleeing the Northern Triangle countries," Edwards added.
Large-scale violence and persecution at the hands of armed criminal actors have now become, along with poverty and unemployment, primary drivers of refugee and migrant flows from the Northern Triangle.
"This reality can be seen, for example, in El Salvador, which has the highest rate of homicides of any country in the world," Edwards said.
The crisis in Central America urgently requires a stepped-up protection response and a regional approach to sharing responsibility for this growing crisis. UNHCR is working closely with the governments of the region and civil society partners to enhance screening capacity to identify people forced to flee violence and persecution in the Northern Triangle.
For children, who require assistance to make decisions on asylum claims, this means that best-interests determination procedures need to be in place to ensure that they are not returned to persecution.
Government efforts require additional human and financial resources, in addition to the rapid establishment of more adequate infrastructure so that asylum-seeking and refugee children are effectively protected.
"We are also working to build reception capacity, including enhanced assistance for asylum-seekers and additional spaces in civil society shelters for migrants so that they can also accommodate asylum-seekers," Edwards concluded.
UNHCR says it is also encouraging governments to introduce legal avenues for refugees so that they no longer have to rely on smugglers and traffickers and expose themselves to exploitation and abuse.
For more information, view our Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from El Salvador.