Central America and Mexico are facing unprecedented pressure as the number of people seeking international protection rises at a time when access to asylum and territory is being limited through troubling border restrictions, said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, on wrapping up a two-week mission to the region.
“In Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, I have seen the tremendous strain the region is under because of the increasing flows of refugees and migrants. Extraordinary efforts are being made by governments and civil society to address these challenges,” Triggs said.
In conversations with internally displaced people, asylum seekers and refugees, Triggs heard stories of sexual violence, death threats and extortion in communities controlled by criminal gangs that – often coupled with economic hardship and the effects of climate change – have forced nearly a million people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to flee their homes.
In Guatemala, Triggs helped launch a programme led by UNHCR and the Guatemalan government’s secretariat on sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking. The aim is to prevent these crimes in remote areas of the country through mobile units that will take information about rights and services to where people need them most. In El Salvador, Triggs learned about innovative community-centred approaches led by the government to prevent violence and empower youth in communities at risk.
“Creating the conditions that make people feel safe and protected in their homes is an essential step in addressing the root causes that drive people to flee in this region,” she said.
Triggs also welcomed El Salvador’s commitment to update the profiling of the displaced population to prevent displacement and to inform responses at the community level.
Mexico, which has gone from being predominantly a country of transit to a country of destination for thousands of asylum seekers, now faces record numbers of new asylum claims this year, which may top 100,000.
As the number of refugees, internally displaced people and returnees with protection needs rises, UNHCR continues to support governments to bolster asylum and protection systems. The UN Refugee Agency also helps people integrate into their countries of asylum through employment, education and psycho-social aid, with the active participation of civil society. In Mexico more than 12,000 people have benefitted from such local integration initiatives.
Triggs highlighted the need for states not only to provide protection to refugees, but also to offer regular migration pathways through education, labour mobility, family unification and other immigration processes. “Different needs require different responses,” she said.
Triggs also expressed deep concern over recent restrictive border practices in the region that risk returning individuals and families who may have urgent protection needs to the very dangers they have fled in their countries of origin in Central America without any opportunity to have those needs assessed and addressed.
“I heard directly from families who were among the thousands of vulnerable people expelled into Guatemala, which are especially troubling. Without safeguards, these expulsions may breach the international prohibition on returns to violence and persecution,” she said.
UNHCR has appealed to the United States government to end the Title 42 public health-related asylum restrictions under which these expulsions are occurring, and to restore the right to claim asylum in the United States.
“All countries have agreed to share the responsibility to provide protection for those fleeing danger and persecution, rather than shifting that duty,” Triggs said.
In the spirit of responsibility sharing, six Central American countries and Mexico are working together with the private sector and civil society, with support from donor countries, under the Regional Framework for Protection and Solutions (known as MIRPS). The framework, currently under the leadership of Guatemala, seeks to address the causes and consequences of forced displacement in the region.