BOGOTA, Dec 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Drug-fuelled gang violence and extreme weather linked to climate change are forcing tens of thousands of people in Latin America to flee their homes every year, according to Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
In the past, it was dictatorships, coups and civil wars that drove people from their homes in Central America, Haiti and other parts of Latin America.
But these days rampant gang violence and drug turf wars are uprooting growing numbers of people from Mexico, Colombia and Central America.
"Increasingly gang violence and organised crime, together with climate change-driven natural disasters, are displacing more people as wars are fewer on the continent and political violence has decreased considerably," Egeland said.
"The NRC has decided to treat this as a humanitarian crisis," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview in Bogota.
CHILDREN ON THE RUN
Gang violence as a leading cause of displacement came under the spotlight after nearly 70,000 children travelling alone - mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - were caught crossing the U.S. border with Mexico this year, more than double the number apprehended in 2012.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg. How many others were displaced and never reached the border? Very many more. This tremendous wave of violence, Latin America has to deal with it and the world has to help," said Egeland.
In Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador combined, gang violence has forced nearly 45,000 people to seek refuge abroad, according to NRC figures.
Local street gangs, known as maras, control entire neighourhoods through extortion, sexual violence against girls and women, threats, killings and forced recruitment.
In Mexico, since the drugs war exploded in 2007, more than 100,000 people have been killed in gang-related violence and around 22,000 have disappeared.
To escape the violence, nearly 21,700 Mexicans have left the country and become refugees, while 160,000 have moved to different places within Mexico, the NRC says.
"People receive threats from gangs and many just leave overnight. Very often they flee empty-handed," Egeland said.
"There's not enough being done to prevent it from happening in Mexico and throughout the region and to help victims."
Egeland, who was the United Nations' top official for humanitarian affairs from 2003 to 2006, said governments in Latin America and international donors have been slow to recognise this new pattern of displacement and its magnitude, which came to the fore three years ago.
"It's easy to understand when displacement is a result of war and all hell is let loose. But people think why should I use tax money to deal with the effects of criminal violence in another country," he said.
Earlier this month, regional governments met in Brazil where they adopted a landmark plan of action that recognises for the first time "other forms of violence," including gang violence, as a factor behind displacement in Latin America, Egeland said.
Regional governments need to focus more on education and vocational training to prevent young people from joining gangs, he said. "Unemployment is a real source of gang violence," he added.
Drug-fuelled violence in parts of Mexico, Colombia and Central America is not only pushing tens of thousands of people to seek refuge abroad, but is also making them move within and between cities and rural areas in their own countries, he said.
The number of Colombians internally displaced by the violence between warring factions has fallen from a peak of 500,000 a year in the late 1990's, but 200,000 were forced from their homes last year alone, Egeland said.
About 20 percent of those were displaced by gang violence, particularly along Colombia's Pacific coast, he added.
Rising numbers of people in the region, especially in Central America and the Caribbean, are being uprooted because of natural disasters linked to climate change.
Extreme weather, such as droughts, heatwaves, and flooding caused by hurricanes, is increasingly common.
"Climate change disasters will displace more and more. Those who are most exposed are the poorest," Egeland said.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tim Pearce)