Aug 14, 2020

Update - Help Families Fleeing Crisis Rebuild

Guatemalan family seeks refuge after violence
Guatemalan family seeks refuge after violence

Political turmoil and rampant violence in Central America have fueled a humanitarian crisis. People traveling to the southern U.S. border to seek refuge have brought critical attention to the horrors that are forcing individuals and families to flee. U.S. and international law give people fleeing violence and persecution the right to request asylum in another country. As the Trump administration issues new policies that may deny asylum to the most vulnerable, here’s what you need to know.

Who are the people seeking safety at the U.S. border?
People are traveling to escape violence in the perilous “Northern Triangle” region of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They are in urgent need of aid and protection.

Gang violence is rampant in the region. Women and girls are specific targets, with violence leveraged as a method to control families with threats, punishments and extortion. In 2016, El Salvador and Honduras were two of the top 10 countries (outside of those at war) with the highest murder rates of women in the world.

“Fleeing is a dire choice for any family," says Meghan Lopez, who leads the IRC's work in El Salvador. "They are forced to choose between facing certain death or a desperate journey north—protected by other families in the caravan. Yet we know that individuals will not stop fleeing until the root causes of violence are addressed, and military troops or scare-tactics will not dissuade them, because currently there is no place scarier than their homes.”

Why are they heading to the U.S.?
The U.S. once had a tradition of welcome that offered safety and a new start to people escaping violence and persecution. U.S. law clearly grants these asylum seekers the right to apply for asylum.

“It is impossible to apply for asylum without physically arriving to the U.S. border or interior," says Jenn Piatt, the IRC's senior director of Refugee Resettlement & Asylum Policy and Advocacy. "The U.S. helped create international refugee law after the tragedies of World War II, for the very purpose of ensuring that refugees would never again be turned back to harm."

Contrary to the U.S. Administration's claims, and based on the IRC's experience in the region, the fears of persecution among those fleeing Central America are very real: Current levels of violence in the Northern Triangle are akin to those in the world’s deadliest war zones. Violence in the region goes back generations and permeates every aspect of people’s lives. In El Salvador, for example, the current gang crisis was preceded by earthquakes and a civil war, and prior to that there were repressive military dictatorships and ethnic genocide.

The danger does not end when people flee their homes; the path north is fraught with gang violence similar to what they’ve fled. Women, girls and the LGTBQ community are specific targets of violence, with women and children also at risk of human trafficking.

Why can’t they stay in Mexico?
On July 15, the Trump administration announced new restrictions denying asylum to anyone transiting through a third country on their way to safety in the U.S., including Central Americans and others transiting through Mexico. While asylum seekers can be denied if they can be removed to a "safe third country" with which the U.S. has a formal agreement, no such agreement exists between the U.S. and Mexico.

With violence on the rise, Mexico is not a safe haven for people seeking asylum. In April, the IRC released a survey that demonstrated that people residing in shelters in Mexico—and particularly women and children—are at risk kidnapping, gang recruitment, sexual abuse and other physical violence.

According to a report by Human Rights First, 2017 was Mexico’s deadliest on record with more than 29,000 homicides—a 27 percent increase from 2016. In fact, the high crime levels prompted the U.S. State Department to issue its highest level of travel warning for five Mexican states.

What should the U.S. do?
All countries have the right to control their borders, and all people—asylum seekers, refugees and others—have a right to due process and to have their cases heard when seeking safety from violence.

Criminalizing these asylum seekers and turning them away puts families back in harm’s way. As the U.S. proposes to deny asylum to Central Americans and others transiting through Mexico to the U.S., the IRC urges the U.S. Administration to uphold asylum protections for Central Americans.

The IRC also calls on the U.S. Administration to refocus its efforts on violence prevention—supporting Central American countries’ efforts to reduce the violence that is driving people from their homes, and to respond to their needs, and eventually make life livable in the Northern Triangle. "In the meantime, pursuing policies that inflict trauma on families and deport them to countries where they face harm will only add to wide-scale instability, and insecurity,” said Piatt.

The IRC is also calling for the U.S. to provide funding for humanitarian aid along dangerous migration routes. Threats of pulling aid only undermine U.S. allies who are in a position to address the root cause, not the symptoms, of this crisis.

How is the IRC helping?
As part of the assistance we provide in Mexico, the IRC is working with local partners to launch a COVID-19 public health awareness campaign along with psychosocial support in shelters at the Mexico-U.S. border in Ciudad Juárez.

The project will directly benefit 17 shelters hosting approximately 3,000 people and reach an additional 10,000 in surrounding host communities. The initiative will include sessions on the transmission of COVID-19, protective and preventive measures, including identification of at-risk groups, signs and symptoms of COVID-19, where to access help and support, reinforcement of public health best practices and the distribution of hygiene kits.

In El Salvador, the IRC provides emergency assistance to help those who are most at risk to find shelter and safety, as well as cash assistance to help people rebuild their lives. We also launched CuéntaNos, an interactive service that provides trustworthy, up-to-date information for people affected by crisis.

In the U.S., the IRC will continue to help meet asylum seekers’ basic needs, facilitate family reunifications, connect people to critical legal services and help them access psychosocial support.

Lincy was persecuted for being trans in Honduras
Lincy was persecuted for being trans in Honduras
Salvadoran sisters whose family fled gang violence
Salvadoran sisters whose family fled gang violence
Aug 14, 2020

Update - Help Protect Asylum Seekers

A shelter for asylum-seekers in Juarez, Mexico
A shelter for asylum-seekers in Juarez, Mexico

Why are people requesting asylum at the U.S. border?
No one takes the decision to migrate lightly. Asylum seekers who travel to the U.S. border risk a perilous journey because staying home would put them in even greater danger.

Many have fled harrowing situations in Central America, Cuba, Brazil, and Venezuela, where they and their families were no longer able to safely go about their daily lives. Over 4.5 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015 due to growing insecurity, instability and violence. People living in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—are enduring violence akin to a war zone.

One mother who had been stuck on the Mexican border for nine months explained that she fled because of an assault and a death threat.

“Many years I was threatened,” she said, as she described fleeing with her eight- and fourteen-year-old daughters. ‘And my children, all of them.”

Why are asylum seekers being sent back to Mexico?
Two policy changes under the Trump Administration have left an increasing number of people stuck in border towns on the U.S.-Mexico border.

First, through a process called “metering,” the administration placed an arbitrary daily limit on the number of asylum seekers allowed to present themselves to U.S. authorities at official ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. This policy has forced some to wait months and even over a year in border towns in Mexico to submit their request.

The second, a policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” was recently briefly blocked by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before a three-judge panel allowed it to temporarily go back into effect. Under the policy, asylum seekers are sent right back to Mexico even after they are able to make their claim to U.S. border officials.They then have to wait there until their case can be heard by an immigration judge in the U.S. To date, over 60,000 people have been sent back because of the “Remain in Mexico” policy—and many remain in harm's way.

On top of putting asylum seekers in dangerous situations, this change makes it much more difficult for those seeking safety to have a fair review of their claims. One study found that only 0.1% of asylum seekers affected by Remain in Mexico were eventually granted asylum.

Why is it not safe for asylum seekers in northern Mexico?
When asylum seekers are sent to border towns in Mexico, they become vulnerable to the same gang violence and gender-based violence that forced many of them to make the dangerous journey to the border in the first place.

Mexico has long been plagued by violence from drug cartels and gangs, and that danger has only increased in recent years. With nearly 35,600 homicides, 2019 was the deadliest ever recorded in the country.

Local communities in northern Mexico have worked valiantly to welcome asylum seekers and keep them safe, but services are stretched thin. Shelters are often at full capacity and in desperate need of funding and assistance to help all those in need of support.

“In Ciuadad Juárez, there are 20,000 people waiting,” André explained on the Oprah’s Book Club episode. “Shelter capacity is very limited so other people are living in makeshift camps, rented rooms, and hotels.

The lack of services is putting already vulnerable women and children at particular risk. Children are reported to be at risk of sexual abuse, gang recruitment and violence, and women are vulnerable targets of criminal gangs engaging in human trafficking. An IRC survey across four shelters on the northern border found an unusually high number of families citing safety and protection from violence and gangs as priority concerns.

Why are women particularly vulnerable?
Policies that turn away or block asylum seekers are particularly dangerous for women.

Many women and girls are seeking safety precisely because of gender-based violence. In 2016 alone, some 65,000 women from the Northern Triangle attempted to seek asylum in the U.S. because of gender-based violence.

Women turned away at the border are again vulnerable to violence in Mexico, as the country itself has experienced high rates of gender-based violence. One study found that approximately 66% of women over 15 in Mexico had experienced some form of violence at least once and 44% had been abused by a partner. Over the last five years, there was a reported 137% increase in femicide (the murder of women because they are women). Currently, a woman is murdered every 2.5 hours in Mexico.

"The limited health, protection and legal services are putting already vulnerable women and children at particular risk," said André. "Many of the people we work with started their journey in an unsafe place, embarked on an unsafe journey, and are still unsafe in Ciudad Juárez."

What is the International Rescue Committee doing to help?
The IRC is supporting local nonprofit organizations and partners in northern Mexico to aid migrants and asylum seekers stuck in border towns.

We are focusing most of our programs on the needs of women and girls who have experienced violence. We’re working with local partners to increase their access to medical care, psychosocial counseling and other assistance, bringing services directly to shelters where women are staying. This reduces risks for women and girls and ensures they receive the help they need while they are on the move. The IRC also works to increase access to information and legal services for migrants and asylum seekers.

Despite these efforts, more resources are badly needed to support asylum seekers. Shelters, large and small, have opened their doors, yet many are overwhelmed and past full capacity. Asylum seekers who cannot find room in a shelter must stay in rented rooms, hotels, or even makeshift camps, where they are especially vulnerable

“This is a crisis that is really under-funded,” André told Winfrey. “A lot of organizations like the IRC are struggling to gather funding and attention to this crisis.”

Salvadoran mother received cash aid from IRC
Salvadoran mother received cash aid from IRC
Aug 13, 2020

Update - Help Refugees at Risk in the U.S.

A trans woman Lincy builds a new life in Phoenix
A trans woman Lincy builds a new life in Phoenix

The Trump Administration is using the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic to intensify its years-long attack on asylum seekers.

Families requesting safe haven at the U.S. border often have no choice but to flee dangerous situations. They have the legal right to request protection in the United States, and should not be criminalized or separated from their children. Policies that turn them away expose them to dangers that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Find out how the administration’s policies put asylum seekers—the majority of whom are people of color—at increased risk and threaten to destroy the asylum system as we know it. Instead of protecting the public, the new proposals appear likely to worsen our unprecedented health crisis.

Border closures worsen the pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, the administration had taken steps to turn away families seeking safety. By placing an arbitrary daily limit on the number of asylum seekers who could be processed, and forcing asylum seekers to make their case from Mexico rather than inside the U.S., tens of thousands of people were being sent into harm’s way.

Then, in late March, the administration issued an order to immediately deny entry to non-citizens arriving at the border—with no opportunity to request sanctuary. In just six weeks, the Customs and Border Patrol denied entry to some 20,000 people, including 400 unaccompanied children. CBP considered these cases for an average of just 96 minutes each before deciding to turn back asylum seekers without any ability to bolster their case or provide more information. Although local communities in northern Mexico have made valiant efforts to welcome those turned away at the border, services are overwhelmed and asylum seekers often find themselves at risk of the same type of violence they fled.

The administration can and should implement public health measures, including screenings carried out by public health officials, to mitigate risks to asylum seekers, and must increase access to health facilities at the border. But current policies merely compound the danger both at home and abroad.

“Superspreader” ICE threatens asylum seekers—and public health

The U.S. continues to hold tens of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants in detention centers that are notoriously overcrowded, with track records of neglect for sanitation, medical care and personal safety.

ICE is likely dramatically underreporting COVID-19 cases in these centers, by a factor of as high as fifteen. But the little data we do have suggests that over twenty percent of the asylum seekers and migrants tested while held in detention are coming back positive for the virus.

Philip*, an IRC client from Democratic Republic of Congo currently detained at a private ICE facility in Texas, recounted his experience: “ICE does not respect any COVID public health measures—they don’t pay attention to the rules. Here I am in a room with over 100 people—like being in a crowded market. We are given soap and masks, but ICE agents do not wear masks, and do not respect quarantine—which is especially bad since we share so many spaces and materials. I have never seen them measure a single person’s temperature.”

Not only has ICE refused requests to release individuals held in these dangerous conditions, the agency is further facilitating the spread of the coronavirus through deportations, sending people straight from overcrowded detention centers to countries already struggling to control the pandemic due to strained health care infrastructure. Over 450 deportation flights have taken place in 2020, with nearly a dozen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean confirming deportees returned with the virus.

Given the conditions in detention centers, all ICE detainees must be released and allowed to follow public health best practices. The administration also must halt all deportations while the pandemic is ongoing, as these are accelerating the spread of the virus. A bill in Congress, the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, would end many of these harmful immigration enforcement measures that are worsening our public health crisis.

Father & son seek asylum at IRC Phoenix
Father & son seek asylum at IRC Phoenix
A family seeks refuge after fleeing violence
A family seeks refuge after fleeing violence
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