The White House announced this week that it is considering a plan to screen minors in Honduras to determine whether they are eligible for refugee status in the U.S. By bringing those who need humanitarian relief directly from Honduras to the United States, the proposed program would ideally stem the flow of potential refugees crossing into the country illegally (and dangerously) through Mexico.
Congress continues to debate whether the unprecedented hordes of Central American minors and families who have crossed the U.S. border illegally in recent months were lured here by aspects of U.S. immigration policy or pushed out of their home countries by rampant violence. Early opponents of the proposal fear it would encourage more migration to the U.S. by loosening the legal definition of refugee, but according to the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), more than half of the unaccompanied migrant children already in U.S. custody should be eligible for aid. And the rising number of refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras seeking asylum in other countries like Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize, suggests that the border crisis might be more a product of a humanitarian crisis in those three countries than faulty U.S. policies.
If approved, the refugee effort would put the level of violence in Honduras on par with the types of post-war and natural disaster humanitarian emergencies seen in Vietnam and Haiti. And if successful, the program would be extended to refugees in Guatemala and El Salvador. The current border crisis has been predominantly comprised of unaccompanied minors and families from those three countries, across which the United Nations estimates 70,000 gang members are currently operating. Yet according to the U.S. Border Patrol, more kids from Honduras have been caught crossing the border alone so far this year than from any other country.
So what is going on in Honduras? Why are so many people not just leaving, but seemingly fleeing, to a degree so significant that the Obama administration is considering implementing the first-ever refugee effort in a country reachable to the U.S. by land?
The Murder Capital
Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world. According to the latest report from the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, the Central American nation saw 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012.
The majority of the violence in Honduras is carried out by two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18. Both were created in Los Angeles by Salvadoran immigrants, between 2001 and 2010. The U.S. deported more than 100,000 convicted members of both gangs back to Central America, where corrupt law enforcement and political instability—particularly in Honduras, which underwent a coup d’état in 2009—allowed them to spread out and take control of entire cities, kidnapping, torturing, and brutally murdering anyone standing in their way. San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second largest city and a gang stronghold, is considered the most dangerous city in the world. According to the CIA World Factbook, Honduras had 17,000 refugees or people displaced within the country as a result of extortions, threats, or forced gang recruitment in 2013.
The Center of Drug Trafficking
Centrally located between South and North America, and particularly susceptible to corruption, Honduras is a major transshipment point for the illegal drug trade. Half of all cocaine seizures in Central America take place in El Salvador and Honduras, with the number of seizures more than tripling between 2010 and 2011.
In an interview with the Washington Post this week, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández called on the U.S. to take acknowledge its “enormous responsibility” for the widespread violence and droves of people fleeing his country.
“The problems of narco-trafficking generates violence, reduces opportunities, generates migration because this [the United States] is where there’s the largest consumption of drugs,” he said. “That’s leaving us with such an enormous loss of life.”
Honduras’s central location also lends itself to sweeping human trafficking. Honduran women and girls are subject to sex trafficking as well as forced domestic and agricultural labor, both in domestic cities and other nearby countries, such as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and the U.S.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the Honduran government “maintains limited law enforcement efforts against child sex trafficking offenders, but has held no offenders accountable for the forced labor or forced prostitution of adults; most trafficking offenders are prosecuted under non-trafficking statutes that prescribe lower penalties; government efforts to identify, refer, and assist trafficking victims are inadequate, and most services for victims are provided by NGOs without government funding.”
Many of Honduras’s deep-seated problems can be traced back to the country’s overwhelming poverty. With about 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line, Honduras is the second poorest country in Central America. More than eight percent of children under five years old are underweight, and the degree of risk for infectious diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever is high. According to UNICEF, between 26,000 and 33,000 Hondurans of all ages are living with HIV.