Refugees International (RI) just concluded a mission to Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, researching the protection and mounting humanitarian challenges faced by Salvadorans and Hondurans, mostly due to violence by criminal gangs.
As I reflect on our findings across these three countries, I am struck by two issues: the inextricable link between displacement fueled by violence and the resulting cross-border migration – and the gendered nature of both. In Honduras and El Salvador, men, women, boys and girls all experience violence. People of any gender are forced to migrate after one or more internal displacements resulting from violent encounters. However, women and girls experience violence and its consequences differently.
In migrant shelters along the Guatemalan-Mexican border, we came across Honduran and Salvadoran mothers with young children in tow who braved the harrowing journey from their home countries to seek protection in new lands. We were told that smugglers place a premium on trafficking women and girls to the north, charging them roughly $500 more for the journey than they do for men and boys. The increased fee does not, however, translate into increased protection from rape, forced prostitution, and other forms of sexual violence and exploitation they routinely face along the route. Sadly, we also learned that many of these women and girls do not know how to articulate their need for international protection upon arrival in Mexico or the United States.
In Honduras, we met teenage girls who were subject to the risk of sexual violence and forced recruitment as “gang girlfriends.” We witnessed the arrival of a ferry with deportees from Belize – all women – who, upon their arrival, told us that they planned to leave the country as soon as they could. We learned that despite the goodwill of state-run agencies, the Honduran government has not yet been able to operationalize protection mechanisms for these women and girls, thus forcing them to displace internally.
In El Salvador’s deportee reception center, we saw young women taking their first steps back into the country after being deported from the United States, some of whom fled physical insecurity and targeted violence – not economic insecurity, contrary to the prevailing belief on the cause of migration from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). We heard first-hand testimony of how low-resourced civil society support groups scramble to pay – often out of their own pockets – for short-term accommodation in hostels in an effort to save women’s lives. We also learned how these same groups have created a grassroots network to shuttle survivors out of the country and through Guatemala, precisely because their government still fails to recognize violence-fueled displacement and implement much needed protection solutions.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to deport thousands to both El Salvador and Honduras. USAID is currently financing a “welcome package” for these deportees in both countries – a hygiene kit, among other nominal goods and services. The obvious question is whether, through these and other modest efforts to assist deportees, the United States is meeting its humanitarian, legal, and ethical obligations surrounding protection when it deports people to such conditions.
We think not.
In both countries, the lack of robust protection mechanisms leaves violence survivors with little to no recourse but to migrate across borders. As one NGO representative so eloquently described: “internal displacement is the preamble to migration.” In other areas of the world, the international community calls these “migrants” asylum-seekers. The history of migration from the Northern Triangle, resulting from economic insecurity, seems to impede policymakers to change their thinking to meet today’s realities – or at least consider protection-friendly alternatives. This rigidity does not do justice to today’s challenging and dangerous conditions.
We are fast approaching the January 8, 2018 deadline for the Trump Administration’s decision to extend or end the designation of El Salvador as a Temporary Protected Status (TPS)-designated country. Hondurans are also waiting for a decision on their TPS status, with the final U.S. determination deferred from November 6, 2017 to July 5, 2018. Some 60,000 Hondurans and some 200,000 Salvadorans are current beneficiaries of TPS status and have been permitted to remain in the United States after natural disasters hit their countries in 1999 and 2001 respectively. Most of these people are parents to hundreds of thousands of U.S.-born children, they have known no home other than the United States for nearly two decades and they have been productive members of U.S. society.
Given the current conditions in their countries of origin, it is critical that the United States government not deport TPS beneficiaries and, rather, provide alternatives for Honduran and Salvadoran women, men and children to remain legally in the United States. The violence and displacement within the Northern Triangle region only underscore the urgency of this issue and the importance of ensuring that the United States not be complicit in undermining fundamental protection principles and violating human rights.
Refugees International Senior Advocate Francisca Vigaud-Walsh traveled in the Northern Triangle region in November 2017. RI President Eric Schwartz and Fellow Gabriela Dehesa-Azuara also participated in the mission. Their full report on the mission is forthcoming.