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Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing 'virtual war zones' in Central America

© Amnesty International/Sergio Ortiz


  • Murder rates in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador among highest on earth
  • Asylum applications at levels not seen since the region’s armed conflicts ended decades ago
  • Young people hardest hit by the violence
Governments in Central America are fuelling one of the world’s least visible refugee crisis by failing to tackle rampant violence and sky-high homicide rates in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras which are forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, Amnesty International said in a new report today (14 October). 
The 25-page reportHome Sweet Home? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador’s role in a deepening refugee crisis, shows how the three countries are failing to protect people from violence, and also failing to set up a comprehensive protection plan for deportees forced by countries such as Mexico and the USA to return to life-threatening situations.
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said: 
“El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have become virtual war zones where lives seem to be expendable and millions live in constant terror at what gang members or public security forces can do to them or their loved ones.
“Although countries like Mexico and the USA are utterly failing to protect Central American asylum-seekers and refugees, it is high time that the authorities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras own up to their role in this crisis and take steps to tackle the problems that force these people to leave home in the first place.”
Record-breaking brutality
Homicide rates in El Salvador have escalated dramatically in the past three years as people are increasingly caught up in ruthless fights between rival gangs trying to assert control over territories. Murder rates in Guatemala and Honduras are also among the highest on earth. 
The United Nations has ranked El Salvador as one of the deadliest countries outside of a war zone, with more than 108 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015. In Honduras the rate was 63.75 and in Guatemala it was 34.99 per 100,000 inhabitants. 
Young people are the hardest hit by violence, with more than half of those killed in the three countries in 2015 under 30 years of age. Boys often join the gangs under duress, while girls are forced to become gangsters’ “girlfriends” and are often sexually abused. 
Shop owners and bus drivers are routinely extorted and forced to pay “taxes” to the gangs controlling their area. Those who fail to follow the strict unwritten rules of conduct are often abused or killed. 
Many young children across the three countries told Amnesty they had stopped attending school for fear of gang members and now have to spend all day at home.
The Salvadoran Ministry of Education has been reported as saying that 39,000 students left school due to harassment or threats by gangs in 2015 – three times the figure in 2014 (13,000). The teachers’ union said they believed the real number could be more than 100,000. 
In some cases, teenagers are harassed and attacked by the security forces, accused of being part of a gang. Sixteen-year-old Andrés (not his real name) is living in hiding in El Salvador after being arrested in May by security forces. He told Amnesty they tortured him to confess to participating in a shootout and being a lookout for gangs in what seems a desperate attempt to show officials are trying to tackle the shocking levels of violent crime in the country. 
He said the soldiers poured bottles of water into his mouth and nose, put his head in a puddle, stuffed sand into his mouth, jumped on his stomach, then kicked, punched and threatened to kill him unless he confessed. His mother complained to the authorities about her son’s treatment and an investigation has been opened. Andrés is now constantly moving from house to house, afraid the men who abused him will find him, and is desperate to leave the country.  
Sent back to violence and death
The relentless violence has led to a surge in asylum applications from Central American citizens in Mexico, the United States and other countries, reaching levels not seen since the region’s armed conflicts ended decades ago.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of asylum applications from people coming from the three countries has increased more than six times in the past five years, particularly in neighbouring countries and in the USA. 
However, despite overwhelming evidence that many asylum-seekers face extreme violence and potentially death if they are not granted asylum, deportations from Mexico, the USA and elsewhere have increased. The number of Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans deported from Mexico increased by nearly 180% between 2010 and 2015. 
For Saúl, it is too late. The 35-year-old father of five was murdered in his native Honduras less than three weeks after he was sent back home from Mexico in July 2016 when his asylum application was rejected. 
A bus driver – one of the most dangerous jobs in Honduras due to the control gangs assert over the industry – Saúl fled the country in November last year after he survived a shooting along with his two sons, who were severely injured. The police failed to follow up on his report or offer him protection. When Amnesty spoke to Saúl in July, his final words were, “I feel like something is going to happen again, maybe to me.” His wife and sons are now living in terror of what might happen to them. 
US-funded reception centres ‘a bad joke’
Government officials in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were unable to confirm to Amnesty how the US$750 million earmarked for the region as part of the US-backed Plan for Prosperity would be used to help deportees whose lives are at risk. The plan is aimed at tackling the root causes of migration as a way to stem the migrant flow and protect those who are deported back.
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have set up official reception centres for deportees, where they have to go through a short interview in which a migration official asks them about any abuse they might have suffered during the journey. They are rarely asked about the violence they were fleeing in their own countries and any needs for protection they might have.
Salil Shetty said:
“Reception programmes for deportees are a bad joke. A shiny building, a warm meal and a welcome banner will not keep these people safe from the horrors that await them back home.  
“Instead, what we need to see is an effective region-wide initiative to invest the international aid they are receiving into tackling what causes so many people to desperately flee their homes.
“Unless Central American leaders address the shocking current levels of violence in their countries, the region risks plunging back into its darkest times.“

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