Women in Central America and Mexico are continuing to flee their countries in rising numbers, according to a new report by the United Nations, warning the United States needs to act urgently as refugees flee their countries toward the southern border in an effort to escape deadly gang violence.
"The dramatic refugee crises we are witnessing in the world today are not confined to the Middle East or Africa," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in Washington as he issued a new report on the situation entitled "Women on the Run." "We are seeing another refugee situation unfolding in the Americas. This report is an early warning to raise awareness of the challenges refugee women face and a call to action to respond regionally to a looming refugee crisis.”
A year after the so-called surge, which saw over 66,000 unaccompanied children, and about the same number of children with mothers enter the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the United Nations is warning that efforts to contain the problem by solely intensifying border control measures is failing. The UN noted that the United States saw more unaccompanied children arriving to the United States in August 2015 than August 2014 and the number of families arriving in fiscal year 2015 is the second largest on record.
The United Nations is asking the U.S. and other countries in the Western Hemisphere to recognize that there is a refugee crisis, ensure that potential refugees are being identified and treated as such at borders and ensure that governments are providing safe and legal avenues to asylum seekers. It also asked the U.S. to “move swiftly” toward a coordinated approach in the Western Hemisphere to deal with the root causes of why women and children are still fleeing.
In the startling report entitled “Women on the Run,” the United Nations refugee agency interviewed 160 women who have recently been forced to flee from the “Northern Triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – and parts of Mexico. The women detailed “pervasive and systemic” levels of criminal armed gang violence where life included assaults, extortion, brutal domestic violence and regular disappearances or murder of family members.
The murder rates in the Northern Triangle are among the highest in the world: Honduras ranks first, El Salvador is fifth, and Guatemala sixth. The murder rate in the United States was 4.9 persons per 1000,000 in 2013. Compare that to Honduras, whose murder was 90.4 per 100,000 persons in 2013, according to the UN’s Global Study on Homicide.
The violence comes from increasing control and violence, with impunity, from two of Central America’s largest and most dangerous gangs: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street (M-18).
Eighty-five percent of the women interviewed in the report say their neighborhood was under the control of these gangs in Central America. Sixty percent of the women reported being directly attacked by gangs and the same percentage reported the crimes to police and received inadequate protection. Many women described coming across dead bodies on the streets on a weekly basis while others barricaded themselves in their homes avoiding public areas and public transit.
“The gangs treat women much worse than men,” said a young Honduran woman identified as Nelly, according to the report. “They want us to join as members, but then women are also threatened to be gang members’ ‘girlfriends,’ and it’s never just sex with the one; it’s forced sex with all of them. Women are raped by them, tortured by them, abused by them.”
The UN demands that more needs to be done in the Western Hemisphere to ensure that these victims from Central America are treated more fairly and protected, ensuring they will not be sent back to their origin countries where they risk losing their lives.
“Many of the women interviewed were relieved and thankful to have found safety in the United States, in particular,” the report reads. “Yet the women profiled in this report described numerous obstacles to finding safety, including facing dangerous journeys, detention, and in certain instances, (re-victimized) from countries of asylum.”