The United Nations special rapporteur to El Salvador has urged the government to take immediate action to help families forced to flee their homes by gang violence.
“El Salvador is suffering a hidden tragedy of people who have had to leave their homes because of the high levels of gang-related violence,” said U.N. Special Rapporteur Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, who examines the human rights of internally displaced persons.
“The problem is more significant and widespread than the Government is currently accepting. The government needs to acknowledge the full extent of internal displacement and act to tackle it and the gang violence which is driving it."
“I urge the Government to intensify its efforts to help and protect these people,” she added.
Jimenez-Damary visited El Salvador between Aug. 14 to 18 in an effort to examine the crisis internal displacement in the country.
The expert visited violence-hit areas including Mejicanos and met senior state and government officials, representatives of civil society organizations and people who had fled their homes.
“Gangs dominate territories and populations through threats, intimidation and a culture of violence that infects whole communities and everyday activities, movements, interactions and relationships,” Jimenez-Damary said.
“Killings are commonplace and extortion is widespread. If people are under threat from gangs, they and their families leave their homes to seek safety elsewhere.”
Young people, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to threats, intimidation and violence, including rape, as are members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities.
“One young woman told me: ‘It is a crime and dangerous to be a young person in El Salvador today.’ This situation is due not only to the gang violence, but in some cases is the result of oppressive police and military operations,” she said.
Jimenez-Damary praised the positive measures taken to address the violence and assist victims, such as the "Safe El Salvador Plan" but stressed the need for true statistics to reveal the current scale of the problem.
Generalized and gang-related violence forces thousands of people in El Salvador to flee their homes every year. The exact figure, however, is unknown. Many displaced people seek anonymity and become “invisible victims,” while others seek sanctuary abroad.
A 2015 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council found that in El Salvador as many as 288,900 people fled their homes, accounting for 66 percent of the 436,500 new displacements in the region.
“The difficulties facing the government are significant, however fully acknowledging the challenges of internal displacement is an essential step towards effectively confronting them and providing necessary protection and durable solutions for internally displaced persons,” Jimenez-Damary said in a statement at the end of her visit.
U.N. special rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation.
The full findings and recommendations from Jimenez-Damary will be included in a report to the Human Rights Council in June 2018.