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Refugees from El Salvador turn themselves in to a U.S. border agent near Rio Grande, Texas.

Refugees from El Salvador turn themselves in to a U.S. border agent near Rio Grande, Texas. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Central American Migrants Suffer from Skyrocketing Violence After Immigration Crackdown

Ninety percent of Central American migrants show symptoms of depression and anxiety as a result of rape, kidnapping, or violent assault during journey to US

Nika Knight

The journey taken by Central American refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. has grown so violent that nine out of 10 migrants seen by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) psychologists exhibit symptoms of depression and trauma as a result—a 300 percent increase from 2014.

"The normalization of violence is a symptom in itself, which diminishes a person's capacity to accurately interpret danger. This can be very dangerous if left untreated."
—Dora Morales, Doctors Without Borders
Those are the results of an MSF survey shared exclusively with the Guardian, the newspaper reported Friday.

"Two-thirds of migrants interviewed at shelters across the country reported suffering at least one violent attack—such as assault, rape or kidnapping—during their journey," the survey found.

"The increase in violence against Central American migrants in Mexico is largely [due to] to the Southern Border Plan, an immigration clampdown launched in July 2014 after a surge of unaccompanied minors and families at the U.S. border," the Guardian observed.

The newspaper adds:

American aid supported the deployment of thousands of Mexican troops to patrol alongside immigration agents. Checkpoints were set up along established migrant routes, forcing people to take even greater risks on their journey north.

Instead of traveling through southern Mexico by catching a ride on top of a freight train known as "La Bestia," most now journey by bus, on foot or by sea along isolated routes where armed bandits, kidnappers and human traffickers operate with almost total impunity.

"Since the Southern Border Plan, it's much harder for us to reach people, but the level of violence is even higher than before," Bertrand Rossier, MSF’s head of mission in Mexico, told the Guardian. "We're concerned about the humanitarian impact of the plan."

"Just over 198,000 migrants were detained by Mexican immigration agents last year, a rise of 130 percent from 2013," the Guardian adds. "Nine out of 10 of those detained were from the violent northern triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala where record numbers are fleeing a relentless war between gangs, organized criminal groups, and security forces."

And the U.S. isn't innocent when it comes to the rising incidence of violence in those countries, either, as writer Emily Schwartz Greco argued when the Obama administration first cracked down on Central American immigration: "the instability and insecurity flaring in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras follows more than a century of U.S. meddling in those countries," Greco wrote.

Indeed, despite the increasing number of assassinations of land defenders in Honduras, for example, the U.S. continues to send the country millions in military aid.

Support for such repressive regimes fuels the flood of people seeking refuge in the U.S., who are then subjected to violence and threats during the journey and often face detention or deportation if they do eventually make it across the U.S.-Mexico border. (And a whopping 70 percent of migrant families—mostly Central Americans—receive no legal representation when they appear in immigration court, which makes them far more likely to be deported.)

"According to MSF psychologist Dora Morales, constant exposure to violence and persecution—both before and after migrants are forced to leave their homes—can lead to serious long-term mental health problems," the Guardian reported.

Morales told the newspaper: "The normalization of violence is a symptom in itself, which diminishes a person's capacity to accurately interpret danger. This can be very dangerous if left untreated as the symptoms can convert into pathologies like PTSD, paranoia, and profound depression."


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