Thursday, October 13, 2016

Nina Lakhani - Central America's rampant violence fuels an invisible refugee crisis

The numbers are staggering, and governments are doing little to protect people from warring gangs and corrupt security forces. Yet entire families who are now seeking asylum are being sent back and told to simply live elsewhere

Until a few months ago, Carlos Hernández was a government health promoter in central El Salvador. His job was to visit poor families and ensure their children attended school and received health checks, in exchange for modest cash benefits. One day in March, on his way to visit a family in a neighbourhood controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang, Hernández witnessed a beating by gang members. Too scared to intervene, he hurried past, completed his visit and started his long walk home. The four assailants were waiting for him.

“I pleaded with them to let me live. I said I had children, that I’d say nothing,” said Hernández, 31. “They agreed to spare my life but told me never to return.” The victim was found dead three days later – one of 611 homicides in the tiny Central American nation that month.

Hernández was scared, but couldn’t find another job. So when he returned to visit the same family a month later, he took a different route and left his uniform at home in hope of going unnoticed.
But he was spotted by gang informants, and the same four youngsters confronted Hernández with baseball bats, accusing him of spying for a rival group. “They took down my address from my identity card, and threatened to kill my whole family if they ever saw me again. We left El Salvador five days later,” said Hernández, now living with his wife and two children in a sparsely furnished room in Tapachula, in southern Mexico, where they are seeking asylum.

The Hernández family are part of an alarming exodus of entire families forced to flee widespread violence in Central America’s northern triangle, the world’s most dangerous region outside an official war zone. As huge numbers of Syrian and African refugees risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to escape war-torn states, advocates say a parallel refugee crisis has unfolded on America’s doorstep amid an undeclared but increasingly brutal war between criminal groups and security forces.

An estimated 80,000 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, mostly families and unaccompanied children, are expected to apply for asylum overseas this year – a 658% increase since 2011, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Tens of thousands more will be forcibly displaced, but not seek international help.

During the 1980s, the three countries known as the northern triangle were blighted by vicious civil wars between US-backed military dictatorships and leftist guerrilla groups. But even after ceasefires were agreed, peace never came to the region as unresolved inequalities and amnesties which let war criminals escape justice fuelled a new wave of violence and corruption.

This toxic mix of warring gangs and corrupt security forces is driving one of the world’s least visible refugee crises, Amnesty International will say in a new report on Friday. “What is shocking is the absolute lack of protection their governments are providing their own people,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s general secretary told the Guardian... Read more: 
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/13/central-america-violence-refugee-crisis-gangs-murder