What you need to know
Political turmoil and rampant violence in Central America have fueled a humanitarian crisis. People traveling to the southern U.S. border to seek refuge have brought critical attention to the horrors that are forcing individuals and families to flee. U.S. and international law give people fleeing violence and persecution the right to request asylum in another country. As the Trump administration issues new policies that may deny asylum to the most vulnerable, here’s what you need to know.
Who are the people seeking safety at the U.S. border?
People are traveling to escape violence in the perilous “Northern Triangle” region of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They are in urgent need of aid and protection.
Gang violence is rampant in the region. Women and girls are specific targets, with violence leveraged as a method to control families with threats, punishments and extortion. In 2016, El Salvador and Honduras were two of the top 10 countries (outside of those at war) with the highest murder rates of women in the world.
“Fleeing is a dire choice for any family," says Meghan Lopez, who leads the IRC's work in El Salvador. "They are forced to choose between facing certain death or a desperate journey north—protected by other families in the caravan. Yet we know that individuals will not stop fleeing until the root causes of violence are addressed, and military troops or scare-tactics will not dissuade them, because currently there is no place scarier than their homes.”
Why are they heading to the U.S.?
The U.S. once had a tradition of welcome that offered safety and a new start to people escaping violence and persecution. U.S. law clearly grants these asylum seekers the right to apply for asylum.
“It is impossible to apply for asylum without physically arriving to the U.S. border or interior," says Jenn Piatt, the IRC's senior director of Refugee Resettlement & Asylum Policy and Advocacy. "The U.S. helped create international refugee law after the tragedies of World War II, for the very purpose of ensuring that refugees would never again be turned back to harm."
Contrary to the U.S. Administration's claims, and based on the IRC's experience in the region, the fears of persecution among those fleeing Central America are very real: current levels of violence in the Northern Triangle are akin to those in the world’s deadliest war zones. Violence in the region goes back generations and permeates every aspect of people’s lives. In El Salvador, for example, the current gang crisis was preceded by earthquakes and a civil war, and prior to that there were repressive military dictatorships and ethnic genocide.
The danger does not end when people flee their homes; the path north is fraught with gang violence similar to what they’ve fled. Women, girls and the LGTBQ community are specific targets of violence, with women and children also at risk of human trafficking.
Why can’t they stay in Mexico?
On July 15, the Trump administration announced new restrictions denying asylum to anyone transiting through a third country on their way to safety in the U.S., including Central Americans and others transiting through Mexico. While asylum seekers can be denied if they can be removed to a "safe third country" with which the U.S. has a formal agreement, no such agreement exists between the U.S. and Mexico.
With violence on the rise, Mexico is not a safe haven for people seeking asylum. In April, the IRC released a survey that demonstrated that people residing in shelters in Mexico—and particularly women and children—are at risk kidnapping, gang recruitment, sexual abuse and other physical violence.
According to a report by Human Rights First, 2017 was Mexico’s deadliest on record with more than 29,000 homicides—a 27 percent increase from 2016. In fact, the high crime levels prompted the U.S. State Department to issue its highest level of travel warning for five Mexican states.
What should the U.S. do?
All countries have the right to control their borders, and all people—asylum seekers, refugees and others—have a right to due process and to have their cases heard when seeking safety from violence. The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits countries from penalising asylum seekers based on their manner of entry.
Criminalising these asylum seekers and turning them away puts families back in harm’s way. As the U.S. proposes to close its southern border, the IRC urges the Administration to uphold asylum protections for desperate Central Americans.
The IRC also calls on the Administration to refocus its efforts on violence prevention—supporting Central American countries’ efforts to reduce the violence that is driving people from their homes, and to respond to their needs, and eventually make life liveable in the Northern Triangle. "In the meantime, pursuing policies that inflict trauma on families and deport them to countries where they face harm will only add to wide-scale instability, and insecurity,” said the IRC's Jenn Piatt.
The IRC is also calling for the U.S. to provide funding for humanitarian aid along dangerous migration routes. Threats of pulling aid only undermine U.S. allies who are in a position to address the root cause, not the symptoms, of this crisis.
How is the IRC helping?
In El Salvador, the IRC provides emergency assistance to help those who are most at risk to find shelter and safety, as well as cash assistance to help people rebuild their lives. We also launched CuéntaNos, an interactive service that provides trustworthy, up-to-date information for people affected by crisis.
How can I help?
Donate: Support our work helping families caught in crisis in El Salvador and asylum seekers who had been separated from their children at the border.