By Margaret Huang
We’re marking World Refugee Day during the largest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 20 million people worldwide have fled their homes due to armed conflict and other violence or persecution. Many of them are leaving Syria. They have nowhere to go — but they have no choice but to leave, given the horrific violence in their home country.
It’s difficult to really comprehend a crisis this large. And it’s even harder when you realize that the crisis extends well beyond Syria, and well beyond the 20 million people who are already designated as refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes to escape violence in Central America and specifically in the so-called Northern Triangle — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala over the past several years. The area is one of the most violent regions of the world, with each country’s murder rates in the top five globally. Unlike people fleeing Syria, they often aren’t considered refugees — which means they have even fewer protections — even as they, too, flee violence and persecution.
The most vulnerable refugees and migrants around the world are children, and many of them are traveling alone. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are living in refugee camps in Europe, just as tens of thousands of unaccompanied children continue to arrive at our border with Mexico.
Since October 2015, more than 23,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras traveled to the U.S. border. They are often fleeing immediate threats of violence from gangs, organized crime, and other criminal actors, including trafficking, forced military service, labor exploitation, or child abuse.
Girls, specifically, often flee because they face sexual violence. As one girl told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “I am here because the gang threatened me. One of them ‘liked’ me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them, and throw them in plastic bags.”
Unfortunately, this threat isn’t just in their home country but imperils girls and women around the world. The widespread fear, sexual abuse and violence at refugee camps in Greece and Libya have been well documented by Amnesty International, and the journey from the Northern Triangle to the U.S. is just as perilous for women and girls. The United Nations has reported that women who are migrants or refugees have reported that they take birth control when fleeing because they know they’re likely to be raped while trying to get to safety. One woman told UNHCR, “if you are raped, you will not end up pregnant. And you will only have the trauma of the event, but not the baby in the future from the rape.”
We cannot allow this to happen — in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.
The U.S. and other countries should welcome migrants and refugees, and we must do more to protect them from harm while they are in transit. These are people who are trying to rebuild their lives, and they should be able to do that safely and with dignity.
No matter what brings someone to the U.S., we have to ensure that there’s a fair and efficient process to examine each person’s case. The U.S. has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that any person who is at risk of violence or persecution can seek asylum in this country and have their case heard.
When people say they are afraid to return to their home countries, the U.S. government must review their claims on a case-by-case basis, not detain them without access to translators or attorneys and then deport them without ever considering their claims. Such decisions have been documented in a number of cases right now along the Mexico border — it’s a violation of international law, it’s endangering the lives of thousands, and it’s wrong.
Millions of people’s lives are on hold and in danger. Many of the countries currently accepting refugees block them from education and employment opportunities, leaving them with nothing to do but sit in refugee camps and making it impossible for them to integrate into communities.
It’s entirely possible to police our borders, protect people’s human rights, and meet our legal obligation to refugees, all at once. Not only can we do all of these things — we must. Today, on World Refugee Day, the U.S. and President Obama must commit to do more for the millions of people who are looking for the safety, peace, and hope that all human beings deserve.
Margaret Huang is the interim executive director of Amnesty International USA