As a refugee crisis unfolds across Europe, another is looming in Central America and Mexico, where a surge of women are escaping violence and rape by fleeing to neighbouring countries, the UN warns.
According to a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, women in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and certain parts of Mexico are escaping gang violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation that is being perpetrated by criminal groups and is going largely unchecked by authorities.
The UN findings were based on interviews conducted with 160 women who described the growing violence they faced in their home countries. They described how women in their communities were targeted by specific and extreme forms of gender-based violence.
One interviewee, Lara, said: "Everything affects you because there a woman is worthless. It is as though your life is not worth anything. They rape. There is no limit. There is no authority. There is no one to stop them."
The UN agency says the "pervasive" violence fueling the refugee crisis in Central America, especially the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, is in need of "urgent and concerted" action by the states of the region.
"We are seeing another refugee situation unfolding in the Americas," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in Washington. "This report is an early warning to raise awareness of the challenges refugee women face and a call to action to respond regionally to a looming refugee crisis."
Violence against women is rife in Central America, where rates of sexual abuse and femicide – the deliberate and violent killing of a woman – are some of the highest in the world. The escalating violence has led to large numbers of women and unaccompanied children fleeing their home countries to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years.
"For years we've seen an increase in asylum-seekers, especially women, arriving to the U.S.," Michelle Brane, the director of the Women's Refugee Commission's Detention and Asylum Program, told BuzzFeed News. "The U.S. is focused on border closures, detention, and deporting people – they're not helping those fleeing for their lives, and are exacerbating the problem in Central America."
Brane said the women and children in Central America who are fleeing "extreme" violence are offered no protection, and that women then face the added risk of being trafficked. She said the countries in question urgently need to strengthen protective systems across the entire region.
"Women have been a huge target for the violence. They're either the primary targets of violence, or they are secondary targets. So if someone is going after a young man who is refusing to join a gang, they'll threaten their mother, sister, or girlfriend. Women also face threats of rape, domestic violence, and there are no shelters or places to keep them safe."
She added: "If you were fleeing a burning house, but you risk facing more danger in your way as you flee the fire, you're still going to flee regardless of whatever is in your way. For these women, they are fleeing endless threats of sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation – nothing will be stopping them when they leave. Nothing will get in their way."
Brane said the U.S. and Central America need to recognize that the violence in the regions is leading to a growing refugee crisis.
"I worry if they don't react to our situation here as a refugee crisis, all we're doing is leading it to a level on the [same] scale as Europe is currently experiencing. This is a refugee crisis, not a border-control issue."