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The US is expanding its refugee program for Central Americans fleeing violence

The plans come amid a renewed hike in children and families reaching the US from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They include a deal in which Costa Rica has agreed to act as a kind of holding nation for asylum seekers in urgent need of relocation

by Alan Hernandez
Jul 27 2016, 12:02am

Photo via Stringer/Reuters

The United States government has promised an expansion of its programs designed to help families and children fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The plans — outlined in a statement released by the Department of State on Tuesday — include stepping up an existing project to process Central American applications for asylum within their countries of origin.

They also highlight a new deal in which Costa Rica has agreed to act as a kind of holding nation for potential refugees who could also be channeled to other countries as well as the United States.

"We are committed to protecting Central Americans at risk and expanding resettlement opportunities in the region," the statement said. "Today's actions will not solve this challenge alone, but are steps in the right direction."

The partnership with Costa Rica, long an island of relative peace in Central America, also involves the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration.

It promises temporary shelter for applicants who are considered too potentially vulnerable to remain in their own countries, while their cases are evaluated in greater detail.

Carlos Maldonado, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in the Costa Rican capital San José that many of the refugees will end up in the United States, but some will head to countries such as Canada, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay.

"They will be subject to a process of preparation and cultural instruction about the country they are going to," he said.

This week's announcements build on promises made by Secretary of State John Kerry in January in response of a sharp increase in the number of Central American children and families trying to cross the border between Mexico and the US that began towards the end of last year.

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US border patrol agents have detained more than 43,000 unaccompanied minors and 51,100 people traveling as families since the start of the fiscal year in October.

On Tuesday, the State Department also promised an expansion of the existing Central American Minors program that gives children with parents living legally in the US the chance to join them as refugees. The idea is to extend this opportunity to other people linked to those children, such as elder siblings and caregivers.

The program has received 9,500 applicants since it began in December 2014 although, according to Reuters, only 267 minors have been accepted under it so far.

The current hike in unaccompanied minors and families from Central America trying to get to the US means their numbers are creeping back up to the record levels reached in mid 2014.

That wave was widely blamed on horrific murder rates linked to gang warfare, particularly in Honduras. The situation in El Salvador also deteriorated rapidly in that year with the breakdown of an inter-gang truce. It was also clear that many Central Americans were seeking to take advantage of US immigration policy that forbids the immediate deportation of children.

Related: A Deported Central American Family Can Now Return to the US to Seek Asylum

The numbers of migrants reaching the US, however, dropped dramatically at the end of 2014 after Mexico, under US pressure, began cracking down on those passing through its territory. That crackdown continues, but Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans are finding a way through nonetheless.

It is not clear why the pressure is growing again, though the already horrific murder rate in El Salvador broke new records at the start of the year within the context of a major government crackdown on the gangs. Homicide data from Honduras and Guatemala shows a slight decrease, but acute poverty and climatic conditions devastating crops may have helped fuel the march north.

The inclusion of Costa Rica in the new deal, meanwhile, reflects the way the relatively prosperous and tranquil Central American country has become a mecca for asylum seekers from its neighbors in recent years. It is also become an ever more important transit point for migrants from further afield.

Thousands of Cubans were airlifted out of the country earlier this year, after their route north was blocked by Nicaragua closing its border. This pattern now looks like repeating itself with a growing number of migrants from Africa and Haiti.

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten

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