UN pushes for migrants to be called refugees

2014-07-09 09:04

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San Jose - United Nations officials are pushing for many of the Central Americans fleeing to the US 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.

Officials with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees say they hope to see movement toward a regional agreement on that status on Thursday when migration and interior department representatives from the US, Mexico, and Central America meet in Nicaragua. The group will discuss updating a 30-year-old declaration regarding the obligations that nations have to aid refugees.

While such a resolution would lack any legal weight, the agency said it believes "the US and Mexico should recognise that this is a refugee situation, which implies that they shouldn't be automatically sent to their home countries but rather receive international protection."

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.

Central America's Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has become one of the most violent regions on earth in recent years, with swathes of all three countries under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs who rob, rape and extort ordinary citizens with impunity.

Honduras, a primary transit point for US-bound cocaine, has the world's highest homicide rate for a nation that is not at war. Hondurans who are used to hiding indoors at night have been terrorised anew in recent months by a wave of attacks against churches, schools and buses.

During a recent visit to the US, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said migrants from his country were "displaced by war" and called on the United States to acknowledge that.

Honduran police routinely are accused of civil rights violations. The AP has reported at least five cases of alleged gang members missing or killed after being taken into police custody in what critics and human rights advocates call death squads engaged in a wave of social cleansing of criminals.

Immigration experts in the US and Central America say the flow of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador is likely to rise as the two countries experience more gang-related violence.

"They are leaving for some reason. Let's not send them back in a mechanical way, but rather evaluate the reasons they left their country," Fernando Protti, regional representative for the UN refugee agency, told The Associated Press.

Even though the agreement would not be legally binding on the countries that sign it, advocates say it would help create international consensus to help the migrants.

Those actions could include emergency aid and social services for internally displaced people inside Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

- AP
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