A United Nations agency is calling for the United States and other counties to refrain from lumping all migrants fleeing Central American countries into the same category.
The U.N. high commissioner for refugees said Tuesday the huge number of child migrants apprehended in the United States should have the opportunity to seek asylum as refugees on an individual basis if they want it — a position previously taken.
The Associated Press on Thursday said U.N. officials were pushing to have many of those migrants treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict.
Jana Mason, UNHCR senior advisor for external affairs, said Tuesday the U.N. agency does not usually give a blanket designation of refugee status to an entire group, and the current crisis would not warrant it. But she said a significant amount of those fleeing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador would qualify for asylum or international protection needs.
"We know, unlike Syria, this is not a situation where just about everybody fleeing can be considered a refugee. We consider this to a mixed migration system," she said, adding that some are fleeing for economic and family reasons while others have legitimate asylum claims.
This week in Nicaragua, the agency and other Latin American countries are marking the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on refugees, an agreement signed by Latin American countries on their commitment to refugees.
The meeting had been scheduled before the current crisis, but the recent migrant surge has moved the issue to the front burner.
"What we are saying is this should be viewed as a humanitarian situation and anyone who wants to claim asylum should have access to those procedures…whatever country they find themselves in. This is the line we always take in any situation," Mason said.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended in the United States this fiscal year. Another 39,000 adults with children have been captured. Most of them are fleeing from crime and violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The Obama administration has also partially blamed inaccurate information being spread in those countries about U.S. immigration policy. The White House on Monday said all minors are allowed to apply for asylum, but most will not qualify, leading to deportation.
Those applying for asylum in the United States must prove that they are victims of human trafficking or that they are suffering persecution from their home government.
The White House has described the influx as a humanitarian crisis rather than a refugee crisis.
Mason said the agency wants to change the narrative that the current crisis is purely an immigration issue. She said the U.N. wants to focus on the push factors that are forcing children out of the countries, including gang violence and other crime.
—Updated 1:30 p.m.