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  Number 396 | Julio 2014
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Central America

Big and small fleeing from the geography of fear

“Central American children are crossing the border into the United States alone” fleeing “hot” lands in pursuit of “cool” places. Such daily headlines as these are causing a big stir. But we mustn’t forget they only represent a fifth of the people crossing that very same border seeking work, asylum and refuge, fleeing a Central America “heated up” with so many forms of violence, including sexual.

José Luis Rocha

Central Americans in search of asylum: it sounds like a front-page newspaper headline from the eighties. The peace accords that the conflicting forces signed between 1988 and 1996 appeared to have tossed the concept of refugee into the corner reserved for anachronistic junk. The “Contra” and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) opened that string of accords in Sapoá, while the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the government of Guatemala tied it off with the “Firm and Lasting Peace Accord” whose pompous yet encouraging name stressed the rhetorical opening to an unprecedented era that would make continued talk of refuges irrelevant.

But contrary to all forecasts, asylum-seeking has returned. The expelling compulsion attributed to the market’s invisible hand is ceding importance to the visible—although unpredictable and therefore more dangerous—armed hand of the military, drug traffickers, hit men, common criminals and youth gang members.

Humanitarian alert:
minors alone at the border

The refuge is the United States. Those fleeing are Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, including children. The evidence for this tendency is overwhelming. The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are the most conspicuous, although by no means only, actors to have noted the abrupt jump in the average annual number of unaccompanied minors detained by US immigration authorities from 6,800 in 2004-2011 to 13,000 in 2012 and more than 24,000 in 2013. A figure of between 60,000 and 90,000 is expected for this year, according to an interagency memo from a Border Patrol official quoted in The New York Times.

The arrival of undocumented minors in early June 2014 was so great it outstripped the capacity of the institutions that usually receive them. With that, the Pentagon converted the military bases of Fort Sill (Oklahoma), San Antonio Lackland (Texas) and Ventura County (California) to house 1,800 unaccompanied minors. Under pressure due to the sudden increase, President Obama called for a coordinated federal effort to address what he called an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Between 2008 and 2013, 54% of the unaccompanied minors apprehended were Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran, a percentile whose disproportionate weight is only evident when compared to the fact that these same nationalities only represented 29% of all deportees. In the 2008-2011 period the number remained relatively stable—between 4,357 and 3,933—but then shot up to 10,146 in 2012 and doubled to 20,805 in 2013.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute also registered an increase, although a much less marked one, of unaccompanied minors among the Central Americans it deported from that country, with the figure rising from 1,946 in 2009 to 5,389 in 2013. The total number of minors deported in the same period rose from 3,985 to 8,180, with 44% of them from Honduras. The weight of minors in the total number of deportees jumped from 6% to 11% and the proportion of unaccompanied minors among the total number of minors rose by 17%, from 49% to 66%. The country with the highest percentage of unaccompanied minors among its total minors is Guatemala, with 74% in 2013.

Fleeing violence?

There is a correlation between the migration of minors and the polymorphous violence currently affecting Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. A USCCB report revealed that over 50% of the children from those three countries detained by the US authorities in 2010 said they were fleeing violence. The same report showed that 25% of a random sample of all minors placed in USCCB Migration and Refugee Services care between 2007 and 2011 had directly witnessed violent crimes, generally committed with firearms. This rate reached 50% among the Hondurans.

The report also mentions an increase in female migration from Guatemala to the United States, attributable to the need to escape violence, rape and torture, a tendency the United Nations Children´s Fund (UNICEF) detected in 2009, with organized crime and youth gangs causing panic and anxiety among the under-18 population. In 2013, the USCCB conducted a new survey among detained children and sent a delegation headed by the archbishop of El Paso, Texas, to Mexico and Central America to visit migrant shelters and do interviews. The delegation found that of a total of 140 minors from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras benefited by the USCCB’s family reunification services in 2011, 41% said they had emigrated to flee from violence.



But these findings run up against a persistent insistence in Central America itself that this emigration is economic in nature. For example, an opinion survey by the Jesuits’ Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team (ERIC) in Honduras revealed that 55.1% of the young people interviewed didn’t want to emigrate, while 44.8% did. Among those who indicated a preference for emigrating abroad, the largest percentage of both females (78%) and males (82%) said the reason was “the bad economy and lack of opportunities to improve their income in the country.” A survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF, conducted in 2010, also found that 51.7% of Guatemalans migrated to improve their economic situation, 37.2% in search of employment and only 0.6% due to violence.

Economic reasons or violence?

The interesting study titled “La esperanza viaja sin visa” (Hope travels without a visa) by the Central American University of El Salvador and United Nations Population Fund reveals that Salvadorans emigrate due to “lack of opportunities for employment, a decent life or education; violence does not always appear as a direct expelling factor, but rather as a macro conditioning factor.”

This vision was partially corroborated by the Americas Barometer Insights 2014 issue dedicated to “Violence and Migration in Central America.” While it concludes that crime does appear to contribute to the migratory wave, particularly if increased numbers of people directly experience it, it also notes 2012 figures showing limited victimization levels among Hondurans (23.2%), an extremely low propensity to feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods (18.9%) and minimal intentions to migrate (11.4%).

Paradoxically, this report found victimization only (17.5%) higher in Honduras, considered the most dangerous country in Central America, than in Costa Rica, generally regarded as one of the safest but where the perception of insecurity (29.7%) is 6.5% higher than in Honduras.

On the face of it, this implausible contrast between Honduras, which in 2013 earned the sad reputation of being the most violent in the world (with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) and Costa Rica, renowned as “the Switzerland of Central America” (with 8.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) suggests that Hondurans are the most irresponsibly unapprehensive people on the planet and Costa Ricans the most jumpy. A less subjective possibility is that the surveys were badly designed or, in an excessive desire for statistical representativeness, not designed to take the geography of fear into account.

Figures on the geography of fear

National perception averages are usually misleading because violence tends to have a very unequal geographical distribution within a country. Although Guatemala and El Salvador—with 39.9 and 41.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively—appear far removed from the scythe-bearing Grim Reaper hovering over Honduras, it should be borne in mind that the homicide rates in the three countries’ capitals are all very high and not so different: 116.6 in Guatemala City (2010), 102.2 in Tegucigalpa (2011) and 89.9 in San Salvador (2011). It is therefore reasonable to suppose that many Salvadorans and Guatemalans also emigrate to escape violence, and that national averages dissimulate an unequal distribution of that violence.
As for Honduras, prioritizing a territorially balanced sample in the surveys could cover up the fact that violence is concentrated in what drug trafficking-related jargon terms “hotspots.” For this reason, a sample in which San Pedro Sula, located in the northern coastal area, is considered only relative to its demographic weight and not its victimization levels and weight in the migratory flow will produce an incomplete image of the specter of violence and its influence on migrations.

For the third consecutive year, San Pedro Sula nailed its position as the world’s most violent city in 2013 with 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Considered Honduras’ economic capital, San Pedro Sula hit first place in 2011 with 125 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and remained there in 2012 with an increase to 174 homicides.

Its reputation has earned it sinister headlines in internationally circulating newspapers: “San Pedro Sula convulsed with violence,” “Seven at night, the most dangerous time in San Pedro Sula,” “Central America’s kidnap capital,” “An earthly hell called San Pedro Sula,” “A city turned morgue”...

The hotspot called San Pedro Sula

The population couldn’t remain indifferent to San Pedro Sula’s “heating up.” Signs of this include, for example, that 51 of the 238 Honduran migrants (21%) fed at the Kino Border Initiative’s soup kitchen in Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora between September 2013 and March 2014 were from San Pedro Sula. That is clear over-representation given that projections based on the last census indicate that only 9% of Hondurans live in that city.

There’s a correlation between this over-representation and another, according to 2005 data: 27% of the total arms registered in Honduras were located in San Pedro Sula. Yet another sign of the correlation between violence and migration explained by the geography of fear is the fact that the most Hondurans attended by the Kino Border Initiative come from the most violent departments identified by Honduran sociologist Julieta Castellanos in 2011 based on the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants: Atlántida (149), Cortés (127), Copán (114), Colón (103), Ocotepeque y Yoro (97) and Francisco Morazán (88).

Homicide figures by sex and age

Another reason national public opinion or even victimization averages require a disaggregated analysis to establish their impact on migrations is the very diverse distribution of victimization and risks by sex and age groups, which the following figures for El Salvador evidence clearly: in 2005, the general death rate per 100,000 inhabitants was 392 for males between the ages of 15 and 29 in El Salvador, compared to 84 for females of the same age range.

This difference is more pronounced when the homicide rates for that age range are examined: El Salvador’s overall homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants was 62.2 for the same year, but for males it was 223 and for females only 20. In Honduras, all we know is that young men and women between the ages of 15 and 24 accounted for 25.7% of the total homicide victims in 2007.

The terror also has the face of a rapist

Homicides throughout Latin America are concentrated among young people between the ages of 15 and 29, which is the same age range of those who migrate most. But that doesn’t mean that only youths or even only young men have violence-related motives for emigrating. Violence doesn’t only have the face of a hit man with a revolver in his hand. It also has the face of a rapist, very occasionally superimposed over that of a youth gang member and far more often camouflaged beneath the “protective” visage of a father, stepfather, cousin or uncle. Or else it has the face of a pimp, in which case girls and female adolescents are its most frequent victims, although it can be suspected that machismo gags any accusations from boys.

In El Salvador, most victims of abuse and commercial sexual exploitation are females aged 10-17 years old. In Honduras, a daily average of two cases of the rape of under-14s was registered in 2010 in Tegucigalpa alone. Of the cases reported the following year—as always a small proportion of those actually committed—only 31% ended up investigated by the public prosecutor. The picture for Guatemala is very similar, where a report by Médecins Sans Frontières says that 93% of rape survivors cared for in 2011 were female and 64% were 12- to 17-year-olds for whom the rape was their first sexual experience.

These are precisely the ages of the unaccompanied minors arriving in such large numbers in the USA. In other words, they are the demographic dividend in which the technocrats place such vaunted and vain hopes. And given that the Central American countries are “heating up,” they are moving away in search of “cooler” places.

My conclusion regarding the underestimation of the relationship between migration and violence is that national percentages can’t be used to weight variables being correlated with migration. Migration is a phenomenon whose actors don’t represent the national averages, but rather have a certain profile being chiseled out by the multiple faces of violence and certain opportunities.

Three different motives can
coexist in the same emigrant

When survey-takers armed with questionnaires containing variables that aren’t mutually exclusive press the migratory subjects themselves to exclusively identify a simplifying reason for having left their country, it puts them in a real predicament.

Among the emigrants cared for by the Kino Border Initiative in a seven-month period starting in September 2013, only between 4% and 7% said they migrated due to violence. The rest focused on lack of work and family reunification. But my long one-on-one conversations with young migrants there showed me a repeated archetypal story: the plan to be reunited with a mother who has been living for years in Los Angeles or Maryland because in Guatemala or Honduras they’re more likely to get a bullet in the head like other people they knew than to get a decent job, which almost nobody they knew ever ends up with.

These three motivations—to avoid violence, find employment and reunite the family—can coexist in the same emigrant. Sometimes motives are so tightly braided they’re interwoven into a single strand, as observed by Jeremy Slack, a researcher at the University of Arizona, who often finds it nearly impossible to clearly delimit the motivations. For example extortion—the various “taxes” different groups charge back home for “protection” or other “services”—overlaps both violence and economics.

The relationship between
violence and migration

While some downplay violence as a motivation for the migration of Central Americans, other sources corroborate the current link. Based on a survey of 404 unaccompanied 12- to 14-year-old migrants in the custody of the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, the UNHCR report “Children on the run” revealed that 44% of the Hondurans said they had been threatened by or were direct victims of armed criminals, including youth gang members, cartels and thieves. The same was true for 66% of the Salvadorans who, like the 35% of Salvadorans attended by the Kino Border Initiative, could well have come from San Salvador, El Salvador’s most violent city.

The method UNHCR used to establish the link between violence and migration is obviously more effective than the sophisticated statistical models of Americas Barometer Insights. UNHCR gathered the testimonies of people who had already migrated rather than the perception of people still in the country expressing migratory intentions. Moreover, its design encompasses the plurality of motives for migrating.

The testimonies I heard on my trip

I traveled along the Mexican-US border from Brownsville to San Diego, passing through Harlingen, McAllen and El Paso in Texas and Nogales in Arizona, as well as Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, Nogales in Sonora and Tijuana in Baja California on the Mexican side. I gathered many testimonies in all these places that tell of the impact of violence on Central American migration. During visits to soup kitchens and migrant shelters, pro-bono lawyers and law offices specializing in migration, activists old and new, grassroots and grasstop organizations, priests and nuns, laypeople and public officials, I was flooded with firsthand data from both migrants and people in contact with Central Americans who had recently crossed the border fleeing violence.

Víctor Maldonado, director of the Ozanam Center in Brownsville, has seen an increase in Central Americans fleeing from recruitment by drug cartels and other dangers. Lawyer Kimi Jackson of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen explained that minors escape from violence in the family or seek family reunification because they’re living with uncles or grandparents who can’t protect them from youth gang members.

Homosexuals also experience persecution, although in the case of children it’s not always possible to identify that motive because “they’re really scared of talking about that.” More frequently the children were witnesses to or reported the murder of a brother or some other family member and have good reason to fear some kind of revenge.

Running from youth gangs
and drug cartels

Katie Anita Hudak, director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, has identified that at least since 2012 Central American adolescents arriving in the United States have been running from youth gangs. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) stated in a report in June that Central Americans are fleeing torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. That echoed an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) communiqué denouncing that at least 458 Honduran children under the age of 14 died in violent circumstances in 2010-2013. It also mentioned a Casa Alianza report that 271 youths and children under the age of 23 were killed in Honduras in the first three months of 2014. Responding to these situations, El Paso’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services has a program to take on the cases of violence victims asking for asylum.

Some organizations identify violence as a prominent driving force behind emigration from Honduras since 2009, the year of the coup against the Manuel Zelaya government. Others pinpoint 2011, when the wars among drug cartels turned more bloody in certain areas of Central America. But all agree on how difficult it is to bring asylum cases to a successful conclusion.

USA: A none-too-generous Mecca
for Central America asylum seekers

According to a 2013 UNHCR report, of the 612,700 asylum petitions registered in the 44 industrialized countries in 2013, the 88,400 requests in the United States make that country the second most sought by asylum candidates after Germany. The 25% increase in the US total for 2013 over 2012 (17,590 more requests) was due to an increase in Hondurans seeking asylum there.

The report states that “About 30% of all asylum claims in the country were lodged by asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America. Violence generated by transnational organized crime, gang-related violence and drug cartels in some parts of Central America may be among the contributing factors leading to the consistent high number of individuals from this region requesting refugee status in the United States of America.”

Rated according to its geographical dimensions with a little help from a UNHCR indicator that reflects the willingness to welcome asylum seekers, the US doesn’t seem a particularly generous or hospitable host. In 2009-2013 it received only one asylum petitioner per 1,000 inhabitants, which placed it 29th in a ranking headed by Malta with 20.2 applicants per 1,000 inhabitants and Sweden with 19.2. From the perspective of another index based on territorial dimensions, the US position doesn’t get any better: it had 28 refugees per 1,000 km², which is insignificant compared to Malta (26,351), Lebanon (12,968), Jordan (3,359), Rwanda (2,300), Holland (2,049), Pakistan (1,869), Bangladesh (1,686), Germany (1,657), Burundi (1,545), Switzerland (1,233), Luxemburg (1,114), Kenya (966), Uganda (816), Belgium (720), Serbia (649), Austria (618), England (614), Yemen (563), Ecuador (481), Togo (411), Turkey (342), Ethiopia (332), Panama (231), Sweden (208) and Norway (134), among many other countries great and small, rich and poor and with high and low population densities that have acted with greater largess, overcoming territorial, demographic or economic pressure to grant asylum.

The Central American migrants running from violence have headed toward a tree that shelters few refugees. And the backing their aspirations receive from international organizations is dangerously varied. The response to their hopes blow hot and cold. In an interview with the Univision Spanish language television network, IOM spokesperson Niurka Piñeiro said her organization promotes campaigns “to inform both the young people and their parents of the dangers and of the truth about the United States. And that means that there isn’t going to be such an amnesty.” On the other hand, UNHCR reported that 56% of the minors it interviewed require international protection.

Meanwhile, Central Americans continue arriving in the US, including an increasing number of children. In the next installment we’ll examine the chances of their hopes being satisfied and whether the violence in Central America provides a basis for their asylum demands.

José Luis Rocha is a member of envío’s editorial council and is associated with the Institute of Sociology of Philipps University, Marburg, Germany.

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