In Latin America, the line between asylum seeker and refugee is fluid. State persecution of refugees rarely occurs, but the conflicts between rival gangs and drug cartels are growing. Pablo Kummetz reports.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), slightly more than 9,000 requests for asylum were submitted in Mexico in 2016, but the number of economic refugees who either want to stay in the country or, as in most cases, continue on to the United States, has risen to half-a-million.
"These are mixed migration currents in which it is difficult to distinguish the people who are seeking asylum from the ones fleeing violence and conflicts," Francesca Fontanini, from the UNHCR in Mexico, told DW.
"The growing activities of criminal organizations, land theft, violence against women and forced recruitment quickly caused the numbers to skyrocket," Fontanini added.
Most of the refugees in Mexico, 90 percent, come from three countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. These countries are known as the Northern Triangle. There, non-state violence has reached a hitherto unknown magnitude.
In the time period between October and December 2015 alone, almost 40,000 people crossed the Mexican border into the US. The number of unprocessed asylum application submitted by people from the region increased from 21,000 in 2012 to 110,000 in 2015, including applications in Canada and the US.
"The UNHCR works with asylum seekers and other organizations to take care of the other refugees," said Fontanini. "In any case, it is not only important that asylum and protection are provided but also that people are successfully integrated into society."
The situation is so dramatic that the UNHCR and the Organization of American States (OAS) held a special summit in July 2016 to improve protection for people from the Northern Triangle.
The physical size of the Northern Triangle and Mexico poses one of the greatest challenges, making it extremely difficult to pinpoint the changing migration routes. The borders are permeable and the migration flow fluctuates. The different governments do not pursue similar policies. They usually cannot even enforce existing laws, are understaffed and have weak state institutions.
The mixed migration flows in the Caribbean pose an additional problem. Smugglers send people off on uncertain journeys in boats unfit for sea crossings, much like the refugees in the Mediterranean region. Many boats are stopped on the high sea and the refugees are sent back to their countries of origin, "even if this violates international law," according to the UNHCR.
The physical size of the Northern Triangle and Mexico makes addressing the region's refugee influx difficult
But there still is hope. In 2016, the Colombian government's successful negotiations with the FARC guerrillas ended a 50-year-old armed conflict which had brought about 6.7 million domestic refugees and roughly 350,000 asylum seekers.
"Ecuador has played in important part in taking in Colombian refugees. Ninety percent of the 60,000 refugees accepted by the country come from Colombia," said Fontanini. The situation in Colombia is now slowly returning to normal.
The Dominican Republic does not deport anyone without documents who may have the right to citizenship in the country, and it generally searches for solutions for stateless persons. Some refugees head south of the Caribbean. Brazil and Argentina have large populations with Arab backgrounds and they are taking in refugees from the Middle East.
"In Brazil there are 8,000 people and Argentina 3,000, mostly from Syria," said Fontanini, adding it is unlikely that the people there will have problems integrating into their communities.