Securing Protection for De Facto Refugees: The Case of Central America’s Northern Triangle

| June 2017
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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that the number of requests for international refugee or asylum protection increased fivefold from 2010 to 2015. In the United States these requests are mainly filed by citizens from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—the countries collectively referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America (TNCA). These applicants flee their countries of origin to escape threats to their lives and personal safety from gang violence, organized crime, and even police and military agents. Though the violence cannot be classified as a “war,” the daily life of many Central Americans is currently marked by human tragedies comparable to those experienced during the regional armed conflicts of past decades.

Despite these extreme conditions, protective status is almost always denied to those fleeing this violence because the threats facing the applicants are not those covered by the definition of a refugee codified in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The source of these tragedies is defined in some academic circles as “unconventional violence,” that is, violence generated by nonstate actors outside an official context of war or armed conflict. In the absence of wars or internal conflicts involving state actors, traditional aid and humanitarian action mechanisms are difficult to activate: in other words, because the persecuted are not victimized by government agents due to membership in a protected group, they do not qualify for refugee status. The situation is further aggravated by the reluctance of governments to acknowledge the seriousness of the threats to their own civilians and to take urgent measures to establish response mechanisms. This violence represents a challenge that must be addressed at the structural level. Failure to do so will perpetuate the environment of impunity, corruption, and inequality, and will further the elimination of institutions that are so indispensable to democracy. Most importantly, the new scenarios of widespread violence in Central America make it necessary to clarify and broaden the definition of a refugee.

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Category: Essay, International Law and Human Rights, Issue 31.2, Migration

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