‘Migrants in C. America suffering war-like conditions’

BOGOTA, Colombia

Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. are suffering from war-like conditions, said the chief of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

“The suffering I have seen, the displacement I have seen is similar to what occurs in war zones,” NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview.

Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance said it expects application petitions to reach 80,000 at the end of 2019, which stands around 48,000 currently.

Humanitarian organizations estimate that nearly 700,000 Central Americans have been displaced.

“Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, have been displaced by horrific cases of violence,” Egeland said.

Violence and lack of economic opportunities are among the main reasons that force thousands of people to leave their countries of origin. In 2018 alone, some 10,500 people were killed in northern Central America, the NRC reported.

According to a UN Refugee Agency report, the number of asylum applications in northern Central America can only be compared with those in countries at war. In 2018, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Mexicans were among the top ten nationalities seeking asylum in the world, along with people from Syria, Venezuela, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

“This week I have met countless families, fathers, mothers, children, babies, grandparents who cry when they say they had to leave everything behind. They had to choose between staying and dying or emigrating. Obviously, they chose the second,” he stressed.

At the same time, more U.S. borders are being closed for migrants day by day. The border between Guatemala and Mexico was militarized and the U.S. has put various legal barriers to prevent people from entering the country on a regular basis.

“The United States has a policy that is counterproductive and inhumane. He [U.S. President Donald Trump] has started a war against people who are fleeing and also cutting aid to humanitarian programs in migrant-issuing countries,” the expert added.

Militarization at the borders, cuts in humanitarian aid, restricted access to documents and the inoperative “safe third-country agreements” signed by the Trump administration with Central American countries make it almost impossible for people displaced by violence to reach safe shelters.

The safe third-country agreement forces Central American migrants to apply for asylum in the signed country and be processed in that country before they can seek asylum in the U.S., even though under U.S. laws migrants are allowed to apply for asylum within the U.S. or at official ports of entry.

Stressing that Washington’s policies could be “counterproductive in the medium term” and “cause a greater wave of migration,” Egeland said: “There will be even more upheavals in the countries where migrants originate. And when the right to request asylum is taken away, it means there will be hopelessness, which in turn will cause further migration.”

Additionally, the gangs that operate in the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America are able to act across borders, according to the NRC.

“Many families told us that they had to flee from one country to another because these groups are not stopped at any border,” Egeland said, pointing out the gangs’ threat to the families.

In the face of the profound humanitarian crisis, the NRC chief underscored the need of a regional response plan to begin systematically building economic opportunities, hope and security under the cooperation of the governments, and humanitarian and development agencies.

Egeland said that a collaboration between governments and international organizations could also make the use of resources “more efficient”.

Trump has pursued a hardline approach to immigration, both legal and illegal, since coming to office and has particularly singled out Mexico for what he says is a lack of action to stem migrant flows, where people are fleeing destitute conditions, including rampant poverty and gang violence in the hopes of securing safety or asylum in the U.S.

Washington signed a safe third country agreement with Guatemala in late July and with El Salvador last week.

Although Mexico rejected such a deal, it reached another one in June with the U.S. administration following a tariff which obligates the country to reduce the immigration flow.

*Beyza Binnur Donmez from Ankara contributed to this story

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