Sexual and gender-based violence is forcing more and more children to flee Central America and seek asylum in the United States.
A new report from Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) and the Human Rights Center Fray Matias de Córdova says that children are disproportionately suffering in the region and many are fleeing their homes. Singling out El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — the “Northern Triangle” countries experiencing a devastating combination of poverty and gang violence — the report says that children are most often targeted by gangs, family members, and intimate partners, with girls, women, and members of the queer community targeted most frequently. Human trafficking was also flagged as a growing problem.
“[Sexual and gender-based violence] is all too common in Central America; particularly when gangs are involved, girls and women receive little to no protection or justice from their governments,” said KIND President Wendy Young in a press release statement following an initial report a month ago. “With no place to turn, many are forced to flee their country to save their lives.”
Despite the report’s findings, it’s unlikely to impact U.S. policy towards refugees. President Donald Trump’s January executive order on immigration targeted refugees around the world, with an immediate impact on those fleeing Central America. Under the order, those attempting to cross the border without documentation can be immediately detained and deported to Mexico, putting them in further danger. But that’s not all — the order also froze the Central American Minors (CAM) in-country refugee processing policy set up by the Obama administration to allow for more refugees to enter the country.
Programs like CAM were introduced due to necessity. Violence in Central America is nothing new, and refugees have been fleeing the region for years. Much of this is due to U.S. policy — for decades, the United States has contributed to the destabilization of Central American governments, in addition to fueling the drug trade. The consequences have been devastating: approximately one Salvadoran citizen dies every hour, and the country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Honduras, which up until recently held the title for “murder capital of the world,” also suffers from staggeringly high crime rates and violence. Neighboring Guatemala is one of the world’s top spots for homicide.
In response, many have chosen to leave — with a significant spike occurring in recent years. During the summer of 2014, tens of thousands of people, primarily women and unaccompanied children, began to arrive in the United States seeking asylum. Despite efforts from then-President Barack Obama and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to introduce an “aggressive deterrence strategy” emphasizing the dangers and risks posed by the journey, refugees continued to risk the trip. In January 2016, the Obama administration agreed to admit more Central American refugees in response to the crisis, expanding the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and launching CAM.
With CAM frozen by Trump’s executive order, fewer children trying to escape violence in Central America will be able to enter the United States — leaving them increasingly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.
“Children, and especially girls, from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are fleeing rape, domestic violence, sexual servitude, and human trafficking,” said Young in a press release on Wednesday. “These children need protection and justice.”
According to KIND’s report, child protection systems in the Northern Triangle countries “provide little or no protection for children targeted by gangs,” an issue that becomes even more dire once they find their way to Mexico. That might be an even bigger problem in light of Trump’s immigration policies. According to reports, refugees from Central America are increasingly too afraid to enter the United States — so they’re staying in Mexico.