GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency expresses alarm at what it says is a significant increase in the number of people fleeing violence and persecution in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The agency reports more than 294,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were forced to flee their homes in 2017, a 58 percent increase from the previous year.
It says the vast majority have fled to Belize, Mexico, and the United States, and increasingly to Costa Rica and Panama in search of refugee protection.
UNHCR spokeswoman, Aikaterini Kitidi, says many are vulnerable women and children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families.
“We hear repeatedly from people requesting refugee protection, including from a growing number of children, that they are fleeing forced recruitment into armed criminal gangs and death threats," she said. "As people journey across borders and onwards they face numerous dangers, including violence at the hands of criminal groups, often leaving women in particular vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.”
The Trump Administration says it will separate children from parents who enter the United States illegally. Kitidi notes some circumstances could necessitate putting a child into care. For example, when the relationship between the child and parent is questionable and especially when trafficking is suspected.
But she tells VOA preserving the family unit is a fundamental tenet of refugee protection. She says the unity of the family should be preserved in the best interest of children and of society as a whole.
“Most of the people who attempt to enter to the United States across the Southern border are coming from these three Central American countries, which are Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which are experiencing high levels of violence and persecution, often targeting children and youth and forcing families to flee to protect their lives,” she said.
Kitidi says the UNHCR believes government policies should be based on the best interest of children and society. She says detention always should be the last resort and special facilities should be provided to ensure family unity.