GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR reports worsening violence and hardship caused by COVID-19 are pushing people in Central America to flee their homes in droves, creating a displacement crisis in the region.
By the end of last year, escalating violence and instability had displaced some 720,000 people in northern Central America, about half of them in their home countries.
The UNHCR reports Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- the most seriously affected countries -- are locked in a vicious circle of chronic violence, poverty and increasing hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UNHCR finds that criminality, which is endemic in the region is flourishing in this time of coronavirus. Agency spokesman Andrej Mahecic says despite COVID-related lockdowns, criminal gangs are using the confinement to strengthen their control over communities.
“This includes the stepping up of extortion, drug trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence, and using forced disappearances, murders, and death threats against those who do not comply. Restrictions of movement made it harder for those that need help and protection to obtain it, and those that need to flee to save their lives are facing increased hurdles to find safety,” Mahecic said.
In addition to constant threats to their lives, Mahecic said the lockdowns are destroying livelihoods, making it difficult for people to support themselves and feed their families. He said access to basic services such as health care and running water are limited.
“Faced with these dire circumstances, people are increasingly resorting to negative coping mechanisms, including sex work and that puts them at further risks both in terms of health and by exposing them to violence and exploitation by gangs," Mahecic said.
The UNHCR reports local community leaders expect a rapid increase in forced displacement as soon as lockdown measures are lifted. The agency says it is working with state officials and partners in Honduras and El Salvador to try to protect people facing threats and violence.