While attention is focused on people fleeing to Europe from Syria , a new refugee crisis is taking shape in Central America
BOGOTA, Oct 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of women flee their homes in parts of Central America and Mexico each year to escape armed gangs and domestic violence and seek refuge in the United States, a flow that is becoming a refugee crisis, the U.N. refugee agency says.
The number of women, some with children, fleeing rampant gang violence in parts of Mexico, and the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, is rising, the UNHCR said in a report published on Wednesday.
More than 66,000 children travelled with their families or alone from the Northern Triangle region - which has the world's highest murder rates - to the United States in 2014.
More unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle and Mexico reached the United States in August than in the same month last year, the U.S. government said.
"With authorities often unable to curb the violence and provide redress, many vulnerable women are left with no choice but to run for their lives," Antonio Guterres, head of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), said in the report.
While attention is focused on the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe from countries such as Syria and Iraq, a new refugee crisis is taking shape in Central America, the UNHCR warned.
"The dramatic refugee crises we are witnessing in the world today are not confined to the Middle East or Africa," Guterres said in a statement. "We are seeing another refugee situation unfolding in the Americas."
The UNHCR said it had recorded a nearly five-fold increase in asylum seekers arriving in the United States from the Northern Triangle since 2008. In 2014, 40,000 people from these countries and Mexico applied for asylum in the United States.
The UNHCR report includes 160 interviews with women who had fled their homes in the Northern Triangle region and Mexico and travelled to the United States. After crossing the border illegally, they were detained and placed in detention centres.
All the women interviewed had either been recognised as refugees or been screened by U.S. authorities, "and determined to have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture," the report said.
One 17-year-old Salvadoran girl called Norma says she was gang raped by three members of the notorious M18 gang in a cemetery in late 2014. She said she was targeted because she was married to a police officer.
"They took their turns ... they tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream," Norma is quoted as saying in the report. Then "they threw me in the trash."
Nearly two-thirds of the women said threats and attacks by armed criminal gangs, including rape, killings, forced recruitment of their children and extortion payments, were among the main reasons why they left their home countries.
"The increasing reach of criminal armed groups, often amounting to de facto control over territory and people, has surpassed the capacity of governments in the region to respond," the report said.
ESCAPING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
U.S. government figures show that 82 percent of 16,077 women from the Northern Triangle region and Mexico interviewed by U.S. authorities in the last year were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture and were allowed to pursue their claims for asylum in the United States.
Violence at the hands of abusive husbands and partners, including rape and beatings with baseball bats, was another key reason why women were fleeing their homes.
"Unable to secure state protection, many women cited domestic violence as a reason for flight, fearing severe harm or death if they stayed," the report said.
More than three-quarters of the women interviewed said they knew the journey overland to the United States was dangerous, but it was a risk worth taking.
Some said they took birth control pills before starting their journey to avoid getting pregnant as a result of rape by human traffickers or gangs, the report said.
"Coming here (to the United States) was like having hope that you will come out alive," the report quoted Sara, who fled Honduras and sought asylum in the United States, as saying. (Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, editing by Tim Pearce. 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 www.trust.org)
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