Neglected Humanitarian Crisis in Central America's Northern Triangle

Anna Surinyach

No Way to Safety for People Fleeing One of the World’s Most Violent Regions

MEXICO CITY/NEW YORK, MAY 11, 2017Central Americans forced to flee devastating violence in their home countries are re-victimized along the migration route to the United States (U.S.) and Mexico, according to a report released today by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

People fleeing high levels of violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—the countries that form the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA)—suffer further from limited access to medical care and are forced to contend with aggressive deportation policies that disregard their need for protection.

“The unrelenting violence and emotional suffering endured by a significant number of people on the move from the NTCA, is not unlike what is experienced by people in the conflict zones where we have been working for decades,” said Bertrand Rossier, MSF’s head of mission in Mexico. “Murder, kidnappings, threats, recruitment by non-state armed actors, extortion, sexual violence, and forced disappearance—these are the realities of war and conflicts also faced by people in this region of Central America.”

The report, Forced to Flee Central America’s Northern Triangle: A Neglected Humanitarian Crisis, presents two years of medical data, patient surveys, and testimonies gathered by MSF teams treating people along migration routes in Mexico. The report illustrates the extreme violence experienced by people fleeing the NTCA, and the need for greater care and protection of people along the routes.

Read the Report: Forced to Flee Central America's Northern Triangle: A Neglected Humanitarian Crisis

Of the 467 people interviewed by MSF, 39 percent mentioned direct attacks or threats to themselves or their families, and extortion or gang-forced recruitment as the main reasons for fleeing their countries. Of this group, 68 percent reported being victims of violence during their transit in Mexico. In total, 92 percent of the 1,817 migrants and refugees treated by MSF mental health teams in 2015 and 2016 had lived through a violent event in their country of origin or during the route. Furthermore, MSF’s report shows that access to comprehensive health care, treatment for sexual violence and mental health services along the journey are limited or non-existent.

“It’s the fourth time that I tried to cross through Mexico, but this had never happened before,” a 35-year-old woman from Honduras told MSF recently. “This time, I came with my neighbor, and we were both kidnapped. The worst part is that they were Hondurans too. The federal police were their accomplice, and each one of us was handed over to gang members. I was raped. They put a knife on my neck, so I did not resist. I am ashamed to say this, but I think it would have been better if they had killed me.”

Despite facing some of the worst violence in the world today, migrants and refugees from the NTCA region are still mostly treated as economic migrants by countries of refuge, such as Mexico and the U.S. People forced to flee the NTCA have limited access to asylum status in both countries. 

 “While there are certainly people leaving these countries for better economic opportunities, the picture that emerges from our report is one of terrorized, vulnerable people running for their lives and those of their families,” said Rossier. “Attempts to stem migration by strengthening national borders and increased detention or deportation, as we have seen in Mexico and in the U.S., ignore a genuine humanitarian crisis and do not curb smuggling and trafficking. These strategies have devastating consequences on the lives and health of people on the move.”

MSF calls on governments across the region—mainly El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Canada and the U.S.—to ensure better alternatives to detention and adherence to the core principle that no person should be sent back to a country where they fear persecution or death. Countries of refuge, such as the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, should increase their formal resettlement and family reunification quotas, so that people from the NTCA in need of international protection, including asylum, can stop risking their lives and health.

“The plight of people on the move from the Northern Triangle shows a failure of the international migration and refugee humanitarian assistance and protection system,” said Rossier. “To play on public fears and merely view these people as a security or an economic issue is short sighted. This is a humanitarian crisis and MSF calls for urgent, coordinated action to ensure that people on the move are safe from violence and persecution.”

Since 2012, MSF has provided medical and mental health care in Mexico to migrants and refugees fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. MSF works in mobile clinics at hostels, near railways and along various locations on the migration route in Mexico. In 2016, MSF partnered with a local organization to open a center for victims of extreme violence, located in Mexico City.