"Displacement due to violence is verifiable, but there is a lack of political will to act"

Cristosal assisted 83 families displaced by violence from January to September 2017—a total of 394 victims who had to flee their homes and take refuge in other areas to save their lives. Cristosal's Chief Program Officer, Celia Medrano, puts it clearly: as long as El Salvador’s government does not recognize the phenomenon of internal forced displacement by violence, its impact on society cannot be measured and the victims will continue to lack necessary protective measures.

Minister of Justice and Public Security Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde said recently that the government has never denied that violence is the reason some Salvadoran families flee their homes, but insists they have statistics to show the main causes are economic motivation and family reunification.

The government official in charge of caring for victims even claimed that some of the displaced people left their homes because they wanted to move.

Given the lack of recognition and effective response from the government, Cristosal filed five appeals for protection before the Supreme Court this year. All were admitted and one resulted in protective measures for the threatened family. These complaints are supported by international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur for Internal Forced Displacement, who are urgently calling on the Salvadoran State to recognize this problem.

Revista Factum: Minister Ramírez Landaverde maintains that forced displacement has many causes, not just violence. He relies on his own statistics, which he has not referenced in detail, but insists they come from surveys on returnees to El Salvador. According to the government, the majority of fleeing families do so because of one main issue: the economy.

Celia Medrano: The migration is multi-causal, the displacement is multi-causal, that’s undeniable. The problem is that the instruments used to collect information directly from victims do not allow for reflection of that multi-causality.

I am deported and an official receives me. He gives me a survey and asks, “Why did you leave?” And I answer, “I did not have work in El Salvador.” It is recorded that I left for economic reasons. If there was an opportunity for an interview, that person could begin to explain: “I was unemployed because I had a workshop in Soyapango. The workshop was the object of extortion by the gangs, and I had to give it up. I went somewhere else, and I couldn’t generate an income there since I couldn’t move my workshop, even though I tried; after that I had to migrate to find work.” But then we see the reason was not only economic. The person was left without his livelihood because of violence. These factors are not accounted for.

Celia Medrano in an interview with Revista Factum on November 23, 2017, in San Salvador. / Photo  Revista Factum/Salvador Meléndez

Celia Medrano in an interview with Revista Factum on November 23, 2017, in San Salvador. / Photo Revista Factum/Salvador Meléndez

RF: And wouldn’t it be more useful to interview people at borders and in shelters, who are in the process of fleeing, than to survey returning deportees?

Medrano: The circumstances under which a person is interviewed when being deported or returned are not the best for obtaining information; however, it’s what’s available. They are surveys, they are not interviews. The problem is knowing how many internally displaced people exist. This is unknown for two reasons: people are fleeing their aggressors, they do not want to be found; and, secondly, they move constantly. A person is in a city and is part of a family with seven members, when suddenly three have to move—that makes it difficult to know how many people are displaced and where they are. Using a representative sample via census is very difficult, because you’re not going to go to a house and ask the head of household, “How many internally displaced persons are living in this house?

The minister talks about information from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, prepared in conjunction with the Directorate General of Statistics and Census. Where is that report? He refers to the information, but we don’t know how the statistics were obtained or how the study was carried out. If this is the information the government is using to decide that the situation is not serious, it must be public information, it must be known.

RF: Why hasn’t the Civil Society Committee on Forced Displacement by Violence and Organized Crime requested this information from the government?

Medrano: We understand that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has finished a report, but it’s something we’ve known about for more than a year. In 2014, a group of organizations presented a thematic hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to call attention to the need for state action focused on supporting victims of internal forced displacement by violence. The official spokespersons at that hearing made public statements to the media where they stated that they were waiting for the UNHCR to conclude a census that was being executed in conjunction with government bodies to determine if the problem existed and if it was serious. We are talking about September 2014. That’s practically three years without the results of a census with unknown methods and restrictions. We don’t know what areas were surveyed, or if the zones were selected independently. Those are the questions. Because I can try to make a census, but if I am constrained to certain areas, the results will be biased.

RF: Several organizations serving Central American migrants in Mexico know that many migrants do not report violence as the reason for displacement, because of the same fears that drove them from their home countries.

Medrano: Almost half of the cases Cristosal sees don’t report violence for two reasons: they don’t have confidence in public systems, and they doubt that reporting will have a positive impact on their problem. We have talked with victims who tell us, “If I had known all the problems it was going to cause, I would never have reported.” We face the contradiction of trying to make the system we must denounce work. But what happens when a victim says, “I am with my son, a minor, in a shelter, because I am a key witness in a trial, but my husband, my mother, my brothers are internally displaced outside this protection. If the corrupt official I have reported is found out, if the gang member finds out, they will retaliate against my family members.” And this is where the Court issues precautionary measures, ordering public authorities to activate protection systems, but they fall short. We must rethink the national system of protection for victims and witnesses, we must rethink whether the current regulations are up to international standards for effectively protecting victims of violence. That’s the hope with the amparo appeals.

Celia Medrano in an interview with Revista Factum on November 23, 2017, in San Salvador. / Photo  Revista Factum/Salvador Meléndez

Celia Medrano in an interview with Revista Factum on November 23, 2017, in San Salvador. / Photo Revista Factum/Salvador Meléndez

RF: Last August, the Special Rapporteur for the human rights of internally displaced persons, Cecilia Jiménez, visited the country at the invitation of the government. She said then that the widespread violence in El Salvador causes displacement. This conclusion contradicted the in-country head of the UNHCR, who rejected the use of that term in April 2017. Why this contradiction?

Medrano: The UN Rapporteur on the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons had the opportunity to learn about the phenomenon in three dimensions: she had meetings with human rights organizations that monitor the issue and carefully attend to victims; she met with the Human Rights Ombudsman, who gave her specific figures on the families arriving at their offices throughout the country; she talked to people in confinement, those without the means or the support to move. And of the people who are already displaced within the country, two of those families are the ones that have filed amparo appeals before the Supreme Court. That context allowed the rapporteur to say: the government is not recognizing the seriousness of this phenomenon. This a matter of political will; if a UN official could verify the situation through these three dimensions in one week of visits, the situation exists, it is verifiable. There is a lack of will to verify it.

RF: What other implications, apart from the obvious lack of responsibility for the protection of victims, does the non-recognition of internal forced displacement have at the international level?

Medrano: The UN Special Rapporteur, the UN High Commissioner, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are already pointing out the gravity of the phenomenon and urging the El Salvador government to recognize it, to quantify it, to study it, and most of all, to take concrete, tangible action to assist and protect the victims. It’s an issue where El Salvador is being identified at the international level as a country that is not addressing a humanitarian emergency, caused by violence and made invisible due to the lack of attention to victims of violence. They say that they are doing something, but those of us who are close to the statistics have registered more cases. The Human Rights Ombudsman registers an increase in instances where people ask for humanitarian aid, relocation, a path out of the country, the prosecution of their persecutors, and a safe return to their homes. They are not given an answer, and the problem continues.

Translated from Kiernan, M. C. (28 noviembre 2017). El desplazamiento por violencia es verificable, pero falta voluntad política. Revista Factum. Retrieved from www.revistafactum.com/el-desplazamiento-por-violencia-es-verificable-pero-falta-voluntad-politica

Hannah Rose Nelson