BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - Thousands of women flee their homes in parts of Central America and Mexico each year to escape armed gangs and domestic violence and seek refuge in the United States, a flow that is becoming a refugee crisis, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday.
The number of women, some with children, fleeing rampant gang violence in parts of Mexico and the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is rising, the UNHCR said in a report.
More than 66,000 children traveled with their families or alone from the Northern Triangle — which has the world's highest murder rates — to the United States in 2014.
More unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle and Mexico reached the United States in August than in the same month last year, the U.S. government said.
"With authorities often unable to curb the violence and provide redress, many vulnerable women are left with no choice but to run for their lives," Antonio Guterres, head of the UNHCR, said in the report.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it had recorded a nearly fivefold increase in asylum-seekers arriving in the United States from the Northern Triangle since 2008. In 2014, 40,000 people from these countries and Mexico applied for asylum in the United States.
The UNHCR report included 160 interviews with women who had fled their homes in the Northern Triangle and Mexico and had traveled to the United States. After crossing the border illegally, they were placed in detention centers.
All the women interviewed had either been recognized as refugees or been screened by U.S. authorities "and determined to have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution or torture," the report said.
Officer's wife targeted
One 17-year-old Salvadoran named Norma said she had been raped by three members of the notorious M18 gang in a cemetery in late 2014. She said she was targeted because she was married to a police officer.
"They took their turns. ... They tied me by the hands" and then "threw me in the trash," Norma said, according to the report.
Nearly two-thirds of the women said threats and attacks by armed criminal gangs, including rape, killings, forced recruitment of their children and extortion payments, were among the main reasons why they left their home countries.
"The increasing reach of criminal armed groups, often amounting to de facto control over territory and people, has surpassed the capacity of governments in the region to respond," the report said.
U.S. government figures show that 82 percent of 16,077 women from the Northern Triangle and Mexico interviewed by U.S. authorities in the last year were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture and were allowed to pursue their claims for asylum in the United States.
Violence at the hands of abusive husbands and partners, including rape and beatings with baseball bats, was another key reason why women were fleeing their homes.
"Unable to secure state protection, many women cited domestic violence as a reason for flight, fearing severe harm or death if they stayed," the report said.
More than three-quarters of the women interviewed said they knew the journey overland to the United States was dangerous but felt it was a risk worth taking.
Some said they took birth control pills before starting their journey to avoid getting pregnant as a result of rape by human traffickers or gangs, the report said.
"Coming here [to the United States] was like having hope that you will come out alive," the report quoted Sara, who fled Honduras and sought asylum in the United States, as saying.