By Isla Lamont
Central America is experiencing a surge of Syrian refugees passing through in an attempt to immigrate to the United States.
The phenomenon is rarely reported in the U.S. According to the Toronto Star, three Syrian families turned themselves over to U.S. immigration authorities and sought asylum during the week of November 17. Additionally, a woman on a bus from Nicaragua to Honduras was detained at the Honduran border on November 21.
The influx of asylum-seeking refugees through non-traditional routes shows their desperation, following the crackdown at European borders, popular mistrust after the Paris attacks, and increasing competition as more refugees pour out of Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa.
The main story gaining headlines in the U.S. is of five Syrian refugees posing as Greek immigrants. The group was arrested by Honduran authorities on November 18 while attempting to reach the United States. They were discovered when they failed to produce vaccination certificates.
According to a spokesperson for the Honduran police, the information gathered suggested that the five men had previously stopped in Greece before passing through either Lebanon or Turkey, then Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rice, before finally reaching Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
The spokesperson was quick to report that the police force did not believe the men had any ties to terrorist networks. They believe the men were seeking asylum in the U.S.
One of the men is reportedly seeking a reunion with his brother. According to NBC, the men are expected to be charged with falsifying federal documents.
The refugee application process for American citizenship usually takes 18 to 24 months, but it can take substantially longer for Syrian applicants due to security concerns.
To be declared a refugee, an applicant must first apply for refugee status through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). If refugee status is received, then the applicant is referred by the UNHCR for resettlement.
According to NBC, the U.S. government approved the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2014.
Refugees most commonly arrive in Brazil or Ecuador, where Syrian visitors are not required to obtain visas, via cash-purchased plane tickets.
Once in the Americas, the route continues to Central America where smugglers guide them north, usually to the United States. Along the way they face perils including starvation, hypothermia, cartel violence, and kidnapping.
According to migration expert Shaina Aber, policy director for the National Advocacy Office of the Jesuit Conference of the U.S. and Canada, “There has always been a small but substantial number of ‘extraterritorial refugees’ from Africa and Asia making their way along Latin America’s established migrant trail. You can track the various refugee crises in the world by who starts showing up.”
However, the trail to freedom often ends in failure even after the furthest lengths have been taken. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), government data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows that while U.S. immigration officers are required to give secondary interviews and consideration to refugees who show “credible fear at the threat of deportation,” 98 percent are sent back to their home countries.