The mass migration of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing violence is an international humanitarian crisis, an expert panel said in Washington, D.C. late Thursday.

While only a few years ago economic opportunity was the most prominent reason for Central American migration, there has been a shift to migrants seeking to escape gang and drug-related violence, the panel said. The number of deaths is comparable to past civil wars, Mary Speck, Mexico & Central America project director for the International Crisis Group, said.

“These are genuine refugees,” she said. “They are fleeing for their lives in many cases.”

Rather than a single family member migrating in hope of sending money back home, entire families are traveling together.

To avoid being tracked by gangs, they use a network of guides to assist with the journey instead of hiring a local coyote.

The journeys are rife with hazards, including rape and kidnappings.

“They start taking birth control because they know that they’re going to be raped at some point along the way,” United States Doctors Without Borders Executive Director Jason Cone said.

The trips are also a much more expensive undertaking than they were several years ago.

“What used to cost a couple hundred dollars now costs thousands of dollars,” Speck said.

Migrants either enter Mexico as a transit point to the United States or as an ultimate destination. The latter is becoming an increasingly popular option, Speck said.

Although the migrants are leaving home in search of safety, Mexico and the United States continue to deport them. Upon their return many begin the journey again, some going through the process multiple times in a cyclical fashion, said panelist Sue Averill, a nurse who has worked with Doctors Without Borders.

The event called “Migrant or Refugee? Central America’s Migration Reality” was held at National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium. It was one of the series of discussion topics about migrants and refugees that accompanied the traveling exhibition “Forced From Home.

Curated by Doctors Without Borders and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the interactive exhibition intends to provide a better understanding of the lives of refugees through an hour-long tour with an aid worker.

“Forced From Home” is free and will be in Washington, D.C. through Oct. 9 on the National Mall near the Washington Monument.

Thursday’s panelists emphasized the issue of Central American migration must be viewed as a humanitarian crisis rather than careless, unlawful immigration.

“People need to recognize how extreme it is for people to leave their home,” Cone said.

Instead of focusing on immigration enforcement, action and funding should be turned toward helping the migrants reach safety, the panelists said. While that immediate need is addressed, there should also be longer term efforts to dismantle the gangs which are now forcibly recruiting younger members, Speck said.  

“An enforcement perspective doesn’t solve anything,” Speck said. “It worsens the humanitarian crisis.”

Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Richard Roche on Flickr.

Teri West is a junior journalism major and can be reached at 

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