El Salvador: UN expert urges swift action on “hidden tragedy” of people fleeing gang violence

SAN SALVADOR / GENEVA (21 August 2017) – El Salvador must do more to help families forced to flee their homes by gang violence, a United Nations expert has said at the end of an official mission to the country.

“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 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. 

Ms. Jimenez-Damary, who visited violence-hit areas including Mejicanos in San Salvador, said the situation needed urgent attention.

“Gangs dominate territories and populations through threats, intimidation and a culture of violence that infects whole communities and everyday activities, movements, interactions and relationships,” the Special Rapporteur 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.”

The human rights expert praised the positive measures taken to address the violence and assist victims, such as the ‘Safe El Salvador Plan’, but stressed that they were insufficient to deal with the current scale of the problem.

She noted the need for statistics to reveal the full extent of the problem. Estimates suggest that thousands of people in El Salvador flee their homes every year, but the exact number is not known.

Many displaced people seek anonymity and become “invisible victims”, while others seek sanctuary abroad, partly because of the lack of protection and assistance available in their own country.
“Young people are particularly affected by violence,” said Ms. Jimenez-Damary who visited El Salvador at the invitation of the Government. “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.

“Youth, women, and girls are particularly vulnerable to threats, intimidation and violence, including rape. Members of the LGBTI community are also highly vulnerable. One person described being forced to flee several times due to threats, assassination attempts and intimidation by gangs.”  

The expert emphasized that under the provisions of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, States such as El Salvador had an obligation to protect people displaced by generalized violence.

During her five-day visit, from 14 to 18 August, the expert met senior State and Government officials, United Nations and other humanitarian partners, representatives of civil society organizations, and people who had fled their homes.

Her full findings and recommendations will be included in a report to the Human Rights Council in June 2018.

Ms. Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, a human rights lawyer specializing in forced displacement and migration, has over two decades of experience in NGO human rights advocacy. She was appointed Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons by the Human Rights Council in September 2016. As a Special Rapporteur, she is part of the Special Procedures of Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization, and serve in their individual capacity.