Global Resources

Women on the run: first-hand accounts of refugees fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico

Publisher: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Publication Date: Jan 2015

The refugee crisis currently playing out around the world is almost unprecedented in living memory. Not since World War II have so many people been forcibly displaced. While conflict in Syria and the resulting flows of people seeking safety in Europe is dominating the headlines, Central America is witness to yet another protection crisis. Tens of thousands of women, travelling alone or with families, are fleeing a tide of violence engulfing the region. Numbers fleeing to the United States to claim asylum have increased fivefold since 2008, yet the voices of those who experience this dangerous journey to freedom have largely gone unheard.

In an attempt to rectify this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has conducted this study that brings together first-hand accounts of women refugees in the United States who have fled the Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA). This region, consisting of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, is one of the most dangerous in the world, especially for women; these countries stand first, third, and seventh respectively in terms of female homicide rates globally. The 160 women who spoke to the UNHCR between April and September, 2015, had all either been recognised as refugees, or else screened by the United States government and held to have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture. The women were all over 18 years old, had travelled from the NTCA or Mexico, and were interviewed in a process guided by the principles of confidentiality, and voluntary and informed participation. While not a representative sample, the interviewees included 15 transgender women, while 67% of interviewees were mothers (one-third of whom had made the journey with one or more children).

The report begins by highlighting the reasons why women had decided to flee their homes. The majority of women spoken to (136 out of 160) said that criminal activity was so pervasive that the neighbourhoods from which they fled were effectively controlled by criminal gangs, while governments were largely powerless to help (or in some cases, even colluding in criminality). Among the specific reasons given by the women for fleeing were: assaults, rape, extortion, disappearances and murder of family and friends, and brutal domestic violence to which women had no or little recourse for justice. Discrimination and abuse, particularly due to gender, was emphasised by interviewees, especially so in the case of transgender women. Additionally, women with children justifiably feared them being recruited into criminal gangs so powerful that they routinely threatened police and government authorities themselves, undercutting any protection they may be able to offer vulnerable women.

Next, the report examines the status of women as refugees under international law. This section discusses international protection of refugees under US law; domestic violence as a basis for international protection; protecting families and children; LGBT-specific concerns; political opinion and violence against women; and religion, race, and refugee status. The final chapter concerns obstacles women face in seeking international protection, from the journey itself where women are vulnerable to exploitation, sexual assault, and murder, to obstacles in accessing asylum in Mexico and in the United States. Throughout the report, the authors place a substantial focus on the words of the women themselves, telling individuals stories of hardship and suffering, the concern they have for family members left behind, and their relief at finding safety, if only for themselves.

The UNHCR proposes a number of recommendations to deal with the crisis at hand:

  • Make saving lives a priority: governments in the region are called upon to ensure that all responses are in strict accordance with refugee law; asylum seekers’ rights are protected and facilitated; safe and legal avenues to asylum are provided so that people do not have to turn to people smugglers.
  • Reinforce host country capacity to provide refuge: governments receiving refugees should have adequate resources in place to screen entrants and identify their specific protection needs. Detention and deprivation of liberty should be avoided, and legal assistance provided to help refugees navigate asylum processes that should be as simple and accessible as possible. Those who do not qualify for asylum should be returned in safety, and with dignity.
  • Address the root causes of displacement: governments in the region must do everything possible to bring about political solutions to conflict, and expand efforts to prosecute traffickers and smugglers.