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'Terrorized at home,' LGBTQ people in Central America flee for their lives

Amid "epidemic levels of violence," LGBTQ people in Central America have "absolutely nowhere to run for safety," according to Amnesty International.
Image: People attend an annual gay pride parade in Bogota, Colombia
People attend an annual gay pride parade in Bogota, Colombia in 2016.John Vizcaino / Reuters file

BOGOTA - Killings and violence against LGBTQ people in Central America are driving hundreds to flee their homes each year, but they have no safe sanctuary to run to, Amnesty International said on Monday.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are being forced to leave El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to escape “epidemic levels of violence” and threats by criminal gangs and security forces, the rights group said in a report.

“People are facing vicious discrimination in Central America due to their gender identities, and have absolutely nowhere to run for safety,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International said in a statement.

“Terrorized at home, and abused while trying to seek sanctuary abroad, they are now some of the most vulnerable refugees in the Americas.”

El Salvador and Honduras have some of the world’s highest murder rates, and LGBTQ people are particularly vulnerable to macho, powerful gangs who control entire city neighborhoods.

At least 136 LGBTQ people in El Salvador have fled the country since 2012 and most crimes go unpunished, according to local rights group COMCAVIS.

Cristel, a transgender women, said she was forced to flee El Salvador in 2014 after receiving death threats from a gang. They told her to leave within 24 hours or they would kill her.

“I was forced to leave my country .. just because I was transsexual, just because I wasn’t a biological woman,” 25-year-old Cristel is quoted as saying in the Amnesty report.

In Honduras, at least 264 LGBTQ people have been killed since 2009, of whom more than half were gay men, according to local rights group, Cattrachas.

Last week the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) stressed its concern about the “high levels of violence against transgender people” and their low life expectancy.

Under the U.N. 1951 refugee convention, LGBTQ people who have experienced persecution and hate crimes because of their sexual orientation and or gender identity are eligible to claim asylum.

According to a study by the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, nearly 90 percent of LGBT asylum seekers and refugees from Central America it interviewed in 2016 said they had suffered sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin.

Most LGBTQ people from Central America seek refuge in Mexico and the United States, having made dangerous overland journeys north during which they are often attacked by gangs.

But few claim asylum because authorities in Central America and Mexico fail to inform them about their rights, Amnesty said.