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Greater cooperation needed to protect refugees in Central America, UNHCR says


Greater cooperation needed to protect refugees in Central America, UNHCR says

As more people flee gang violence, UNHCR's international protection chief calls for shared responsibility and preparedness to protect refugees effectively.
10 March 2017
Mexico. Young refugees flee gang violence in El Salvador
Young refugees from El Salvador head off to play street football in their adopted city of Tapachula, southwest Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala, in this September 2016 file photo.

MEXICO CITY – The impact of insecurity and violence uprooting tens of thousands of people from the Northern Triangle of Central America is becoming increasingly evident in Mexico, UNHCR’s international protection chief said today, urging greater regional efforts to provide effective refugee protection.

In his opening statement at the Protection Dialogue with the Mexican Government, held in Mexico City, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk described the Central America situation as approaching crisis levels. He spoke shortly visiting the border region with Guatemala, where he had the opportunity to speak with many refugees and asylum seekers.

For decades, Mexico has served as a place of transit for Central American migrants heading north. But in the last few years the reality has changed with an increasing number of people from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, seeking asylum in Mexico. "This is a bit of a wake-up call so we are all better prepared to respond to a new, changing dynamic in the region," Türk​ said.​

“In the various conversations I had with men, women and children, who fled mainly from the Northern Triangle, it is evident that they are escaping from horrific situations of violence. They mentioned extortion, forced recruitment and human rights abuses mainly perpetrated by transnational organized crime groups and local criminal gangs,” he told an audience made up of government officials and institutions working on refugee issues.

“Displacement is a huge challenge but also an opportunity for social transformation."

Türk said that among those now fleeing the Northern Triangle there are entire families and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people – collectively known as LGBTI - who risk double discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

“Displacement is a huge challenge but also an opportunity for social transformation. Despite the horrors they have endured, refugees discover strength and resilience while in displacement. We need to empower them to contribute to their future and becoming agents of change,” he said.

With violence and persecution expected to continue in Northern Triangle countries, both Mexico and UNHCR agreed on the need for greater regional cooperation and support to provide effective protection for those driven from their homes.

Last year, Mexico received almost 9,000 new asylum applications, a 156 per cent increase in comparison to 2015. Since January 2015, the number of asylum applications filed has increased by more than eight per cent per month.

Based on this trend, the UN Refugee Agency projects at least 20,000 additional asylum claims in Mexico in 2017. “These figures reflect the reality on the ground and it is a clear indication that Mexico is no longer only a country of transit but also of destination for refugees,” said Mark Manly, UNHCR's representative in Mexico.

"These programs should be a win-win situation where the reception community can also benefit."

In the protection response, emphasis needs to be given to local integration programmes, including access to the labour market and basic services. "These programmes could be a win-win situation where also host communities can benefit. Embracing diversity is an added value to any society," Türk said.

The parties also concluded that there should be greater efforts to improve the quality of asylum, access to a fair and efficient process in the recognition of refugee status, and alternatives to detention for asylum-seekers with special provision made for children.

Both UNHCR and the Government of Mexico will continue working with the local and regional authorities as well as to strengthening the partnership with civil society groups and shelters which host refugees and migrants in Mexico.

UNHCR welcomed the commitments announced by President Enrique Peña Nieto during the UN Leaders Summit held in New York in September 2016, as well as Mexico's commitments under the San Jose Declaration, adopted in July last year.

"These are important steps also ahead of crafting a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018," Türk concluded.