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Securing Protection for De Facto Refugees: The Case of Central America's Northern Triangle*

  • Celia Medrano

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that the number of requests for international refugee or asylum protection increased fivefold from 2010 to 2015. In the United States these requests are mainly filed by citizens from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—the countries collectively referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America (TNCA). These applicants flee their countries of origin to escape threats to their lives and personal safety from gang violence, organized crime, and even police and military agents. Though the violence cannot be classified as a “war,” the daily life of many Central Americans is currently marked by human tragedies comparable to those experienced during the regional armed conflicts of past decades.

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1 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Population Statistics Database Online, accessed September 10, 2016,

2 Luis Almagro, “Llamado a la Acción: Necesidades de Protección en el Triangulo Norte de Centroamérica” (Speech at the High-Level Roundtable convened by the Organization of American States and UNHCR, San José, Costa Rica, July 6, 2016),

3 Tania Martínez, “Ortiz Minimiza Desplazamientos Forzados: ‘Tampoco Estamos en Afganistán,’”, September 22, 2016,

4 United States Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “El Salvador 2016 Crime and Safety Report,” March 10, 2016,

5 Diego Caldentey, “El Salvador ya iguala en cifras de muertes violentas a las víctimas de la guerra siria,” Lainformacion, March 9, 2016,

6 Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (PDDH) de El Salvador, “Informe de Registro de la Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos sobre Desplazamiento Forzado,” August 8, 2016. See ch. 3, “Caracterización del desplazamiento forzado interno desde los registros en la Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos,” title 3.2, “Información proveniente de instituciones públicas solicitada por la PDDH,” p. 58.

7 Observatorio de la Mesa de Sociedad Civil contra el Desplazamiento Forzado por Violencia y Crimen Organizado en El Salvador, “Desplazamiento Interno por violencia y crimen organizado en El Salvador. Informe 2016,” January 13, 2017, p. 10.

8 Isabel Saco, “Cifran en 289.000 a las víctimas de desplazamiento forzado en El Salvador,” Agencia EFE, May 6, 2015, American Edition,

9 International Organization for Migration, “Factores de Riesgo y Necesidades de Atención para Mujeres Migrantes en Centroamérica,” (2016), p. 46.

10 Ibid., p. 47.

11 International Organization for Migration, “Encuesta sobre Migración Internacional de Personas Guatemaltecas y Remesas 2016,” p. 121. Also, ch. 3, III, “Caracterización de las personas guatemaltecas en el exterior,” p. 39.

12 Xenia González Oliva, “Salvadoreños esperan meses para recibir asilo en Nicaragua,” El Diario de Hoy, September 8, 2016.

13 Ibid.

14 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Desplazamiento y necesidades de protección en el TNCA,” (Presentation in Tapachula, Mexico, February 2, 2017).

15 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Situación de derechos humanos de familias, niños, niñas y adolescentes no acompañados refugiados y migrantes en los Estados Unidos de América,” July 24, 2015, pp. 10–11.

16 International Organization for Migration, “Factores de Riesgo y Necesidades de Atención para Mujeres Migrantes en Centroamérica,” p. 50.

17 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Desplazamiento y necesidades de protección en el TNCA,” graphic “Retornos de ciudadanos del TNC desde EEUU y México por país de origen.”

18 Sibylla Brodzinsky and Ed Pilkington, “US Government Deporting Central American Migrants to Their Deaths,” Guardian, October 12, 2015,

19 Sindy Hernández Bonilla (coodinator), Ely Zea, Nieves Gómez, Viken Cayayan, and Rebeca Barrueto of the Instituto de investigación y proyección sobre dinámicas globales y territoriales (IDGT), “Diagnóstico sobre desplazamiento interno en Guatemala,” (Presentation at Rafael Landívar University, Guatemala City, Guatemala, November 29, 2016).

20 Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP) at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA), “Los salvadoreños y salvadoreñas evalúan la situación del país a finales de 2015,” Press Release 30, no. 1 (January 2017), p. 9.

21 Sarnata Reynolds, “‘It's a Suicide Act to Leave or Stay’: Internal Displacement in El Salvador,” Refugees International Field Report, July 30, 2015,

22 Consejo Centroamericano de Procuradores de Derechos Humanos, Press Release for the XLVIII Session in San Salvador, El Salvador, February 23–24, 2015,

23 Instituto de Investigación sobre Dinámicas Globales y Territoriales de la Universidad Rafael Landívar, la Maestría en Desarrollo de la Universidad del Valle de Guatemala y FLACSO-Guatemala, “El Plan Alianza para la Prosperidad de los países del Triángulo Norte: Impactos para la gobernabilidad, el desarrollo y las migraciones,” Open Forum in Guatemala, May 25, 2016, See ch. III, “Perspectivas en torno al Plan Alianza para la Prosperidad del Triángulo Norte Triángulo Norte. Argumentos a favor y dudas respecto al Plan Alianza para la Prosperidad,” p. 27.

24 Office of the President of the United Nations General Assembly, “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants Adopted by All Member States at Historic UN Summit,” Press Release, September 19, 2016,

25 United Nations General Assembly, “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants” (Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on September 19, 2016), A/RES/71/1.

* Editor's note: This original essay was translated from Spanish by Maria Codina, with the assistance of Drew Thompson. The editors also wish to acknowledge the contribution of Professor Joy Gordon, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. Chair in Social Ethics at Loyola University-Chicago, without whose initiative and support the publication of this essay would not have been possible.

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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