The Refugee Crisis You Haven’t Heard Of Happening in America's Backyard

Women and children are fleeing violence in Central America and parts of Mexico in record numbers.
A Salvadoran immigrant holds her son while standing in vegetation to hide from organized crime bands in Huehuetoca, near Mexico City, on June 1. (Photo: Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
Oct 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As the world’s attention is turned to the tens of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East making the perilous journey to Europe, another crisis of violence and displacement is unfolding in the western hemisphere. The number of women and children fleeing Central America and parts of Mexico to seek asylum in the U.S. is rapidly rising, according to a new report from the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees.

Between April and September of this year, researchers interviewed more than 160 women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of Mexico who had reached the U.S. alone or with children. The women interviewed left their homes to avoid gang violence, murder, and sexual violence; 136 of those who shared their stories told the agency that their neighborhoods were entirely controlled by armed criminal groups. The refugee agency released the report to encourage countries in Central and North America to cooperate and support the growing number of people who need protection.

“Everything affects you because there, a woman is worthless,” a Mexican woman named Lana told the researchers of life in her village. “They [drug cartel members] rape. There is no limit. There is no authority. There is no one to stop them.”

Police and judicial corruption leave many women with no legal recourse or path to justice in the face of criminal activity, according to the report. Researchers also found transgender women and indigenous women are subject to heightened levels of violence.

Though all of the women interviewed had been screened by the U.S. government and recognized as refugees, many of them were immediately detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after reaching the U.S. Several women said being held in detention worsened traumas experienced during their path to asylum and in their home countries, particularly those who were detained in prison cells with their children.

“It is better to be free and to die by a bullet than to suffer and die slowly in a cage,” one Mexican woman said.

In 2014, Honduran President Juan Hernández drew a direct line between U.S. drug policy and the violence and surge of migration from his country.

“A good part of [migration] has to do with the lack of opportunities in Central America, which has its origin in the climate of violence, and this violence, almost 85 percent of it, is related to the issue of drug trafficking,” Hernández said.

While women fleeing the region endure drug cartel and trafficking violence, the report notes that domestic and gender-based violence, along with corruption at the local level, are also contributing factors to the mass migration.

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Historically, the U.S. policy approach to violence in Mexico and Central America has focused heavily on counter-narcotics efforts and other drug war tactics, but that approach may be too narrow, according to Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. Olson helped introduce the report with the U.N. authors on Wednesday.

“People are fleeing for a whole variety of reasons that have to do with many other things than [drug-related violence],” Olson told TakePart. “The U.S. needs to do a better job of screening people for legitimate claims for protection—many people have legitimate reasons to be fleeing the area because of high levels of violence and crime.”