UN Refugee Agency Reports Increase in Number of Women and Children Fleeing Gang Violence in Central America

The White House press release yesterday, referring to members of a central American criminal gang as “animals” comes as the UN Refugee Agency released new data showing a significant increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers from Central America.

More the 294,000 people Central Americans, mostly women and children were registered as refugees or for asylum at the end of 2017. This is a 58 percent increase from the previous year and 16 times more than at the end of 2011.

The cause? People living in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are fleeing their homes out of fear of criminal gangs. “We hear repeatedly from people requesting refugee protection, including from a growing number of children, that they are fleeing forced recruitment into armed criminal gangs and death threats,” UNHCR spokesperson Aikaterini Kitidi said at a press briefing in Geneva today.

Most of these people fleeing violence, she said, have fled north to Mexico, the United States and Belize, (though an increasing number are fleeing to Costa Rica and Panama to the south.)

The increase in the number of refugees headed north comes as the White House has embarked on a campaign intended to instill fear about Central American migrants in the United States.

In a statement released yesterday, the White House repeatedly referred to members of one of the gangs from which these refugees are fleeing as “animals,” detailing extremely violent acts allegedly carried out by gang members. While it is true that the violence perpetrated by these gangs is awful, it is reasonable to assume that Trump administration is using the violence committed by these men as a pretext for more intense crackdowns on people seeking refuge from this violence.

This is precisely the pattern that the Trump administration invoked to justify a sweeping restriction on refugee resettlement to the United States, including a total ban on people from Muslim countries. The violence of some men in the group — sometimes real, sometimes imagined (remember the Bowling Green massacre?) — is used as justification to deny the victims of that violence access to protections to which they would otherwise be entitled as refugees or asylum seekers.  So far this year, the number of refugees resettled to the United States is at an all time low–and the number of Syrian refugees is just 11.  This is despite the fact that the refugees selected for resettlement to the United States are picked precisely because they have been victims of violence and have no real prospect for returning back to their homes.

Now, the Trump administration is curtailing access to asylum procedures for Central Americans and imposing punitive measures like systematically separating children from their mothers at the border.  Once again, the Trump administration is invoking the violence of some in the group as a justification to further victimize the very people who are most directly affected by this violence.