A Central American family awaits a visit with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at a shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, late last year

A Central American family awaits a visit with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at a shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, late last year. © UNHCR/Gabo Morales

For many Central Americans who find themselves targeted by brutal street gangs, fleeing is the only option, even during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, one strategy has emerged as the best way to curb transmission and save lives: staying at home. But sheltering in place in his gang-ravaged neighbourhood in El Salvador was simply not an option for Óscar.*


In March, the 44-year-old happened to witness a crime, and the armed gang responsible for it went after him, threatening his family. Óscar knew that, despite the pandemic, he had no choice but to flee for his life.

“I thought about going to the police, but they [the gang members] told us that if I did, they would kill my family,” said Óscar, who has an adult son who is still in El Salvador.

Growing up in El Salvador, a country which has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America, Óscar has for years seen first-hand just how ruthless the criminal gangs that terrorize many areas can be. The concrete, targeted threats proved more frightening and potentially deadly than even the coronavirus. And so, he said, “I decided to go to Mexico.”

He managed to get out of El Salvador ahead of a nationwide stay-at-home order that went into effect on 21 March and entered Mexico near the southwestern border town of Tapachula.

There, Óscar was able to apply for refugee status, in part because the Mexican government considers registering asylum claims an essential activity. This means that the country’s refugee authority, known by its Spanish-language acronym, COMAR, has remained open during the pandemic, thus helping prevent the possible deportation of those, like Óscar, who are fleeing violence and persecution.

He is not alone. Despite the heightened threat of fleeing during the pandemic, the real and pervasive dangers back home continue to push people to seek safety abroad. Among them is 19-year-old Mathius* from Honduras, who had no choice but to flee after he refused to sell drugs for a street gang.

“In my country, we are threatened and extorted.”

He left for Mexico with a friend in early March, ahead of the Honduran government’s 16 March proclamation of a stay-at-home order, which was followed two days later by a total lockdown across the north of the country that remains in place. While escaping meant travelling just as the COVID-19 outbreak was spreading across the region, exposing himself to the potentially deadly virus seemed like a safer bet than defying the gangs back home.

“In my country, we are threatened and extorted,” said Mathius, who left his mother and sisters back in Honduras and has applied for refugee status in Mexico. “The coronavirus doesn’t worry me.”

In recent years, record numbers of people like Óscar and Mathius have been seeking asylum in Mexico. Most are Central Americans fleeing targeted persecution by gangs. Last year, Mexican authorities received more than 70,000 applications. That was up from just 2,100 five years earlier, in 2014.

And while the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the pace of applications, people in desperate straits are continuing to arrive, despite the health risks. While the weekly number of applications for refugee status in Mexico fell by about 90 per cent in early April, compared with January and February, according to data from COMAR, hundreds of people in dire need are still applying each week.

In a recent statement, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, expressed concern that border closures and other pandemic-related restrictions are affecting the right to seek safety. He called on countries to respect long-standing laws protecting refugees.

“Securing public health and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive.”

“The core principles of refugee protection are being put to the test,” Grandi said, adding that “people who are forced to flee conflict and persecution should not be denied safety and protection on the pretext, or even as a side effect, of responding to the virus.”

“Securing public health and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive. This is not a dilemma. We have to do both,” Grandi added. “Long-recognized refugee laws can be respected even as governments adopt stringent measures to protect public health, including at borders.”

Coronavirus is also putting refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people – among the most vulnerable populations in the world – at even greater risk by threatening their often-meagre sources of income. Additionally, the living conditions of many refugees, particularly new arrivals in their host countries, such as Óscar and Mathius, often make it difficult for them to take preventative measures.

Amid the pandemic, dozens of shelters in Mexico have closed to new arrivals, while the configuration of others makes keeping a safe distance hard. For that reason, UNHCR is helping shelters take additional preventive measures, such as creating isolation rooms. The UN Refugee Agency is also helping to decongest shelters by delivering assistance to asylum-seekers so they can rent their own lodgings. Since early March, the agency has provided cash assistance to more than 3,300 people so they can rent their own accommodation and more easily maintain physical distance. It has also installed handwashing facilities in shelters and handed out thousands of hygiene kits.

Andrés Ramírez, the general coordinator of Mexico’s refugee authority, COMAR, said international protection remains a “fundamental right” during the pandemic.

“The state of extreme vulnerability in which these people arrive after having suffered persecution, generalized violence, or the systematic violation of their human rights back home, makes them an absolute priority for the Mexican government, particularly amid this health emergency, which hits the most vulnerable groups hardest,” Ramírez said.

*Name changed for protection reasons.

Originally published on UNHCR on April 28, 2020

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