The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has said it is alarmed by the spike in the number of people fleeing violence in Central America, calling the international community to “grant [those fleeing] protection” and help the countries address the “root causes”.
“More than 294,000 asylum seekers and refugees from the North of Central America were registered globally as of the end of 2017, an increase of 58 percent from a year earlier,” UNHCR said in a statement on Tuesday.
“This is 16 times more people than at the end of 2011,” it added.
“The vast majority of those fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are seeking refugee protection to the north in Belize, Mexico, and the United States, or to the south in Costa Rica and Panama.”
The applicants are primarily women or children unaccompanied by or who have become separated from their families.
UNHCR added that despite the risks they face when crossing borders, such as violence, sexual violence or exploitation, these people travel “out of desperation, facing high levels of homicide in their countries of origin”.
Although Mexico continues to be a country of transit to the United States, more asylum seekers have decided to settle there, UNHCR said.
“Last year we saw the new phenomenon that they are getting closer to Costa Rica, Panama and Belize, and we can no longer consider Mexico as a country of transit, but as a country of destination as well,” Francesca Fontanini, UNHCR’s spokeswoman for America, said on Tuesday.
According to Fontanini the complexity of the problems facing Central American countries meant there is no quick solution.
“For now they can’t and they don’t want to go to back to their countries,” Fontanini said.
“We need the states to invest in long-term solutions,” she added.
UNHCR’s comments come less than a month after the administration of US President Donald Trump announced it was ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Hondurans. Officials said on May 4 that more than 50,000 Hondurans who hold TPS would have 20 months to leave the US or face deportation.
The administration has also ended TPS for some 200,000 Salvadorans, 2,500 Nicaraguans and 55,000 Haitians.
TPS provides protections for people unable to return to their homes out of safety concerns, usually stemming from natural disasters or wars.
Trump has cracked down on immigration since taking office last year, reiterating his promise to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Last month, an annual caravan of migrants and refugees from Central America made international headlines after Trump took to Twitter to criticise what he considers lax border laws.
Hundreds of migrants and refugees made their way from Central America to the US-Mexico border with the intention of seeking asylum in the US. The first of the caravan – eight women and children – were allowed to enter the US on April 30.
As of May 2, at least 88 people from the caravan had crossed into the US.