By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Oct 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gang violence has become so deadly in parts of Central America that many people are living in what is a war zone, Amnesty International said on Friday, adding that some migrants who have fled danger are killed within weeks of being deported home.
Every year violence at the hands of gang members drives tens of thousands of people, including children, to flee their homes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - countries with the world's highest murder rates, the rights group said.
Most migrants travel through Mexico to reach the United States in the hope of refuge and a better life, in what Amnesty and the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR have described as a largely invisible "refugee crisis".
"People are living in conflict conditions. The violence is becoming unbearable," said Salil Shetty, head of Amnesty.
"People are leaving because there is an option of being killed," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Honduras.
Such violence has made El Salvador and Honduras among the world's deadliest countries outside a war zone, the UNHCR says.
Powerful gangs - the Barrio 18 and their bitter rivals the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) - have carved up city neighbourhoods in these Central American countries in their fight for territorial control, drug trafficking routes and extortion rackets.
To maintain control, gang members use extortion at gunpoint, rape against women and girls, murder, and forced recruitment of children, Amnesty said in a report.
RISE IN ASYLUM SEEKERS
The number of refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras exceeded 108,000 in 2015 - a more than five-fold increase in three years, UNHCR figures show.
Authorities in Mexico have stepped up security and police patrols along the country's porous border since 2014, with increasing numbers of migrants being deported back to Central America, Amnesty said.
The number of people deported from Mexico to El Salvador rose by 231 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to Mexican government figures quoted by Amnesty.
"People are thrown back into the same violence," Shetty said.
For some, this can mean death.
Saul, a bus driver, who spoke to Amnesty following his deportation to Honduras, was killed soon after his return.
The 35-year-old father of five, one of dozens of migrants interviewed by Amnesty, said he had fled Honduras last year after surviving a shooting along with his two sons.
"He told us: 'you may not be able to speak to me again'," Shetty said.
Saul was deported from Mexico in July after his asylum application was rejected by the Mexican authorities. He was shot dead just weeks later.
"His family is literally in hiding," Shetty added.
So far this year, Mexican authorities have deported more than 57,000 people, mostly Central Americans, the UNHCR says.
"The key element to respond to this volatile situation is the improvement of security, humanitarian assistance and the economy, the lack of which will continue to cause people to flee," said UNHCR spokeswoman Francesca Fontanini.
Humberto Roque, the Mexican government's under-secretary for migration, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation earlier this year that Mexico had "no problem" granting refugee status to vulnerable people.
Authorities in El Salvador say gang violence is just one reason why people are leaving - others are seeking jobs or wanting to join relatives already living in the United States.
Authorities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have increased the number of centres receiving deported migrants when they first arrive, providing most with a snack, hygiene kit, water, a free phone-call and sometimes bus fare to return home.
"Despite this improvement, our research found that states' efforts to protect their returned citizens appeared to end the moment they walked out the doors of the reception centres," Amnesty's report said.
The U.S. government has pledged $750 million to boost development in Central America this year - more than double the amount given in 2014.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Emma Batha.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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