The Northern Triangle of Central America—comprising El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—is now one of the most dangerous places on the planet. The United Nations estimates that Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, while El Salvador comes in fifth and Guatemala sixth. It is for this reason that so many Central American families have made the very difficult decision to send their children out of their home countries, bound primarily to the United States, in the care of often violent and abusive smugglers. However, the refugee crisis currently gripping the Northern Triangle encompasses not only unaccompanied children, but mothers with children, as well as entire families. And it shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

The scope of this crisis, as well as its level of brutality, are vividly described in a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), titled Women on the Run. As the report explains, the women and children who are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the borders of other countries in the region, are leaving places in which government institutions have effectively lost control of territory that has come under the control of armed gangs which kill with impunity, extort money from anyone they want, and rape women as they please.

Consider the story of Norma in El Salvador:

In late 2014, four gang members abducted her and took her to a nearby cemetery. Three of the four proceeded to rape her; she believes they targeted her 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.” When it was over, she said, “They threw me in the trash.” She contracted a sexually transmitted disease as a result of the rape.

Not surprisingly, the report found that, among the thousands of women and girls from the Northern Triangle who journeyed to the U.S. and “expressed a fear of being returned to their home country and were subject to the credible fear screening process, U.S. authorities have found that a large percentage have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.” However, it is important to keep in mind that women and children are not only seeking asylum in the U.S.—they are also going to Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Mexico’s place in the refugee crisis is complicated. On the one hand, there are Central American refugees who are seeking asylum within Mexico. But, on the other hand, Mexico is witnessing its own flow of refugees from parts of the country in which conditions have deteriorated nearly as much as in Honduras or El Salvador. So, at the same time as Mexican authorities consider offering safe haven to refugees from the Northern Triangle, they must also regain control of those stretches of territory that are now being ruled and terrorized by gangs and thereby producing refugee flows.

The report also described the results of interviews with 160 women from the Northern Triangle and Mexico. Those interviews paint a grim picture of life in the communities from which the women fled:

  • 85% described living in neighborhoods controlled by gangs.
  • 100% of women who reported attacks or threats to the police received no protection or ineffective protection.
  • 64% described direct threats and attacks by gangs as reasons for fleeing.
  • 10% described persecution by the police.
  • 58% of women from Northern Triangle countries described sexual assault and abuse.

UNHCR recommends that the governments of the nations to which these refugees are fleeing respect the right to asylum, abide by refugee law, not detain asylum seekers as a deterrent against the arrival of more asylum seekers, and seek to address the root economic, political, and social causes of the violence that is forcing so many people from their homes. And UNHCR emphasizes that dealing with the refugee crisis effectively “requires a comprehensive regional response.” Conditions in the Northern Triangle countries and parts of Mexico have spun out of control. It will require the concerted effort of more than one nation to regain control over a very volatile situation.

Photo Courtesy of UNHCR.