United Nations officials are pushing for many of the Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. to be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict, a designation meant to increase pressure on the United States and Mexico to accept tens of thousands of people currently ineligible for asylum.
Most of the people widely considered to be refugees by the international community are fleeing more traditional political or ethnic conflicts like those in Syria or the Sudan. Central Americans would be among the first modern migrants considered refugees because they are fleeing violence and extortion at the hands of criminal gangs.
The United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Central American migrants crossing into its territory, particularly children traveling without any adult guardian. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended since October. Three-fourths of them are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and most say they are fleeing pervasive gang violence and crushing poverty.
Immigration experts in the U.S. and Central America say the flow of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador is likely to rise as the two countries experience gang-related violence. Honduras, a primary transit point for U.S.-bound cocaine, has the world’s highest homicide rate for a nation that is not at war. In El Salvador, the end of a truce between street gangs has led to a steep rise in homicides this year.
Violence by criminal organizations spread in recent decades after members of California street gangs were deported to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where they overwhelmed weak and corrupt police forces and seized control of large sections of the countries.