Guatemala is emerging as an unlikely safe haven for refugees fleeing rampant gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras, a new destination for Central Americans who have traditionally beaten a path to the United States, according to the United Nations.
Gang violence, poverty and few jobs, drives hundreds of thousands of people every year from El Salvador, Honduras, and to a lesser extent Guatemala, to seek refuge and a better life mainly in America.
Until recently Guatemala was a transit country for migrants and refugees, including women and children travelling alone, making the overland journey north.
But now more Salvadoran and Honduran refugees are regarding Guatemala – where asylum requests rose by more than 200 percent from 2014 to 2016, as a “country of refuge”, said Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
“There are many people who end up asking for asylum in this country, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras,” Grandi said during a visit this week to Guatemala and other countries in the region.
Guatemala has granted refugee status to 178 Salvadorans and Hondurans since 2014, the UNHCR said.
To enforce control, Central American street gangs, known as maras, rape women and girls, murder, force children to join their ranks, and extort money at gunpoint, according to UNHCR.
During his visit to Mexico this week, Grandi said on Twitter he was “shocked and sad” after hearing refugees speak of “horrifying” abuses carried out by gang members.
“The fundamental challenge is to address root causes, especially the root causes of the violence that cause so many people to flee,” Grandi said in a statement earlier this week.
While maras operate in the poor country of Guatemala, asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador say they see the country as a safer option for them.
“We heard only certain parts of Guatemala were violent, that it was much calmer here,” Salvadoran Juan Pablo, who fled to the capital, Guatemala City, with his family in May, told UNHCR.
“Every corner of El Salvador is dangerous. Guatemalans have been good to us and supported us,” said Juan Pablo, who did not use his real name for security reasons.
Guatemala does not detain asylum seekers but gives them temporary visas while their cases are reviewed, UNHCR noted.
Other Latin American countries, including Costa Rica, Belize and Mexico, have also seen asylum claims rise, mostly from Hondurans and Salvadorans.
According to UNHCR, last year Mexico received almost 9,000 new asylum applications, up 156 percent from 2015.