Every year thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, some of the world's most impoverished and violent nations, head north in search of a better life. But that journey has become increasingly dangerous and expensive, with criminals assaulting, extorting and kidnapping migrants as they attempt to pass through Mexico, forcing some to remain south of the U.S. Border. Mexico is among the countries that could wind up accepting more refugees and asylum seekers if the United States continues toughening its migration policies.
According to UNHCR, last year Mexico received almost 9,000 new asylum applications, up 156 percent from 2015. Grappling with drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping, Mexico is witnessing one of its worst periods of violence and has suffered an estimated 150,000 gang-related murders and about 30,000 disappearances in the past decade.
Guatemala is also emerging as an unlikely safe haven for refugees fleeing rampant gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras, a new destination for Central Americans who have traditionally beaten a path to the United States. Gang violence, poverty, and few jobs, drive hundreds of thousands of people every year from El Salvador and Honduras, to seek refuge and a better life mainly in America. To enforce control, Central American street gangs, known as Maras, rape women and girls, murder, force children to join their ranks, and extort money at gunpoint. Until recently Guatemala was a transit country for migrants and refugees, including women and children travelling alone, making the overland journey north. But now more Salvadoran and Honduran refugees are regarding Guatemala - where asylum requests rose by more than 200 percent from 2014 to 2016, as a "country of refuge"
"There are many people who end up asking for asylum in this country, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras," Grandi said during a visit to Guatemala. Grandi said he was "shocked and sad" after hearing refugees speak of "horrifying" abuses carried out by gang members. "The fundamental challenge is to address root causes, especially the root causes of the violence that cause so many people to flee," Grandi said
While Maras operate in the poor country of Guatemala, asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador say they see the country as a safer option for them.
"We heard only certain parts of Guatemala were violent, that it was much calmer here," Salvadoran 'Juan Pablo', who fled to the capital, Guatemala City, with his family. "Every corner of El Salvador is dangerous. Guatemalans have been good to us and supported us,"
Guatemala does not detain asylum seekers but gives them temporary visas while their cases are reviewed.
In addition to the threat of gang violence, worry over having enough food is also forcing people from drought-stricken Central America to migrate north to the United States. Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala suffer from hunger-related migration. Roughly half the families surveyed in the three countries, dogged by drought, crop losses, and reduced agricultural productivity, face so-called food insecurity when supplies are limited or uncertain, an international report compiled by several global aid groups said. More than half the households spent more than two-thirds of their wages on food, and about a third live in extreme poverty, it said.
"These levels of food insecurity have not been previously seen in the region," said the report, which listed high unemployment and low wages among the main reasons for migration from Central America.