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Guatemala offers respite from region’s gang violence

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Refugee and migrant children play in a shelter run by UNHCR in Guatemala. © UNHCR/Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo

In a visit to the Central American nation, UN Refugee Chief Filippo Grandi highlights its emergence as destination for Salvadoran and Honduran refugees.

By UNHCR staff | 23 August 2017

GUATEMALA CITY – Threatened and harassed by murderous street gang members in their native El Salvador, parents Juan Pablo* and Cecilia were driven to move home time and again.

But it was the prospect of a disrupted education for their five-year-old son Juan and one-year-old daughter Alma that finally drove them to quit their Central American homeland.

“Our children have to study and you can’t do that when you’re always moving from one place to another,” says Juan Pablo.

He and his family are among tens of thousands of people fleeing the street gangs, or maras, in El Salvador and Honduras – although their destination is an unlikely one: neighbouring Guatemala.

The powerful maras’ criminal activities include extortion, drug dealing, human trafficking, prostitution and robbery. While their reach extends to Guatemala, asylum seekers say it is a safer option for them.

“We heard only certain parts of Guatemala were violent, that it was much calmer here,” says Juan Pablo, who fled to Guatemala City with his family in May. “Every corner of El Salvador is dangerous.”

“Guatemalans have been good to us and supported us.”

To better safeguard new arrivals, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and civil society organizations have set up a network of safe spaces to protect asylum seekers like Juan Pablo and family – whether they choose to stay in Guatemala or continue on to another country.

The indications are that more are opting to stay put. From 2014 to 2016, the number of asylum requests in Guatemala increased 202 per cent. Additionally, Guatemala does not detain those seeking asylum, which has allowed Juan Pablo and Cecilia to achieve their main goal.

“They have allowed my son into school without cost,” says Cecilia. “And my daughter gets to go to day care. Guatemalans have been good to us and supported us.”

The family have applied for asylum and received visas to stay temporarily while their case is reviewed. Since 2014, 178 people have been recognized as refugees here, with 97 per cent of claims by Salvadorans, and 83 per cent by Hondurans, proving successful.

Protection is not limited to families. People identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, known collectively as LGBTI, are specifically recognized as eligible refugees in Guatemala. That recognition has been vital for Leti, who grew up in El Salvador, but found the transition to being a woman a brutal experience there.

“When I told my family about my sexuality, home became hostile for me,” she says. She fled abuse and violence in El Salvador more than a decade ago after watching other LGBTI friends be murdered.

While life in Guatemala has not been easy, she and other LGBTI friends from El Salvador have thrived here since receiving the opportunity to apply for asylum.

“I’ve made friends and found new spaces to volunteer and work as an activist,” she says. “I feel at home here. The people here aren’t my blood relatives but they feel like sisters.”

“The fundamental challenge is to address … the root causes of the violence that cause so many people to flee.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi is currently making a first working visit to Guatemala, during which he met with President Jimmy Morales, refugees and UNHCR partners.

He noted that the protection measures were needed as Guatemala is increasingly become a “country of refuge,” and not just a stepping stone for refugees and migrants headed to Mexico and the United States.

“There are many people who end up asking for asylum in this country, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras,” said Grandi. He stressed that concerted international action was needed to tackle the insecurity driving displacement in the region.

“The fundamental challenge is to address root causes, especially the root causes of the violence that cause so many people to flee. And this search for solutions can only be carried out on a regional basis … And this has to happen with the support of the international community,” he said.

Grandi is visiting Guatemala at the start of a 10-day visit to five countries in the region. In Honduras and El Salvador, he is scheduled to meet with communities affected by violence and insecurity as well as government leaders and UNHCR partners.

He will also visit Mexico, where he will meet with refugees and asylum-seekers, mainly from Central America, who found safety in the country, where incipient efforts to develop durable solutions, principally local integration, are key. The trip concludes in Costa Rica.

*All refugees’ names have been changed for protection reasons.