Belgium slams doors on asylum seekers from El Salvador
Asylum seekers from El Salvador hardly ever receive a positive answer to their application for protection in our country. In 2020, barely 10 percent of Salvadoran asylum applications were approved; in 2019, the number was 90 percent. Does the change in trend indicate a revision of the policy? MO* searched for an explanation and spoke with a Salvadoran asylum seeker in Brussels.
- In 2020, barely 10 percent of Salvadoran asylum applications were recognized. In 2019, the figure was 90 percent.
- People are mostly fleeing El Salvador from the extremely violent gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, which dominate much of life there. They do not shy away from extortion, death threats, kidnappings and murders.
- In 2020, far fewer Salvadorans applied for protection in Belgium: there were 538, down from 1369 in 2019. This is partly due to the corona crisis.
- But lawyers, refugee organizations and other stakeholders have been critical: negative decisions for asylum applications from El Salvador are seemingly arbitrarily motivated.
- Former assessors of the CGVS indicate that they did not have enough knowledge for their interviews with asylum seekers from El Salvador. The CGVS denies this.
- At least 120 Salvadoran asylum seekers were already oping for “voluntary return” since November, a practice that the new State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi (CD&V) wants to speed up. ‘But if you are persecuted by the gang, you have no future in this region,’ NGOs respond.
On 12 November 2020, a chartered flight took off from Zaventem with about eighty Salvadorans on board, bound for their homeland. The reason was the policy of ‘voluntary return’. In early December, another 21 Salvadorans left, and on a third flight later that month, another 20 people left.
The new Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi (CD&V) wants to bring a breath of fresh air our country’s asylum policy: rapid voluntary return was therefore hailed as a spearhead solution. Asylum seekers from El Salvador, a small Central American country of 6.7 million people, have been acquainted with the approach.
The figures for the arrival and departure of Salvadoran asylum seekers in our country stand out. El Salvador entered the Belgian top five countries of origin for asylum applications in 2019. 1369 Salvadorans applied for asylum in Belgium at the time, according to figures from the Commissariat-General of stateless and refugees (CGVS). El Salvador came in fifth place, after Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq.
In 2020, the number of asylum applications from El Salvador fell sharply: only 538 Salvadorans applied for protection in our country. El Salvador fell to ninth place in terms of asylum seekers’ countries of origin. Most requests were made in the first three months of 2020. Afterwards, the number of applications was around ten per month, which can be explained by the coronavirus crisis.
Although there were fewer applications from Salvadorans in 2020, their chances of obtaining an asylum in our country also fell dramatically. Until mid-2019, almost 90% of Salvadoran asylum seekers received a positive response. But by 2020, around 90% of Salvadoran applications in Belgium were rejected, according to Eurostat figures.
Has the security situation in El Salvador changed? And is “voluntary return” an answer for these hundreds of refugees seeking international protection?
Twenty years of gang violence
Unlike other countries listed in the top five of asylum seekers (Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq), we are less aware of why people are fleeing El Salvador. Rival and extremely violent gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18, have been sowing terror throughout society for two decades.
These gangs have their origin in the U.S. city of Los Angeles. , Salvadoran youth fled there during the civil war in El Salvador, which raged from 1980 to 1992. They came into contact with American gangs and their criminal activities. When the young people were returned to El Salvador after the civil war, they took the violence with them.
Today, these young people in El Salvador are fighting for control of the entire territory. They make money from extortion but also provide services to other criminals, such as arms and drug smuggling. Or they act like sicarios (hitmen).
The two big gangs have, all in all, about 60,000 members: that’s the core. They dedicated their lives to the gang and they are often recognizable by specific tattoos. In addition, there are more than 600,000 “collaborators”: the gangs can count on them for all kinds of services. The gangs operate in 94 percent of El Salvador’s territory.
‘My parents refused’
We met Jorge Iglesias (24) in Brussels Central Station. He is staying at a Reception Centre of Fedasil in Jodoigne, together with his sister María (20) and brother Carlos (18). They arrived in our country In June 2019, from El Salvador, in a bid for international protection.
Jorge is on the run from the terror that has haunted him for over a decade. “In 2006, the then-president (Antonio Saca, ed.) wanted to use his “Iron Fist” plan to end gang violence. He had gang members locked up en masse, often without sufficient evidence.’
‘My parents refused to defend the cases of a group of gang members. On April 1, 2006, they disappeared, kidnapped by MS-13.’
“My parents were both lawyers. When the trials against the gang members started, they forced my parents to defend their cases,’ says Jorge. The young man is from a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of capital San Salvador, where the MS-13 gang is active. ‘One of the cases they had to defend involved a group of 23 gang members. My parents refused.”
The police watched with dismay as many gang members were released again for lack of evidence. ‘They started to pressure lawyers, including my parents. To no longer defend gang members, or to provide evidence. So my parents were under pressure from MS-13 as well as from the police. On April 1, 2006, they disappeared. Abducted by MS-13. I was fourteen at the time and stayed behind with my sister and little brother.’
As the corona virus still circulates in the country, we look for a safe place to continue our conversation, now that the door of the MO* editorial office is also locked. We find a warm place to stay in the Beguinage Church in the heart of Brussels. For several years it has served as the House of Compassion, a group of Christians with a warm heart for refugees and undocumented migrants.
Jorge retrieves two files from his backpack. One is the court file of his uncle, who asked for and was granted asylum in the United States. The other is a folder of newspaper clippings about what happened to his parents.
On June 15, 2007, a year after his parents’ disappearance, their bodies were recovered. The commissioner was an MS-13 leader who had ordered the murder from prison.
Jorge’s uncle, also a lawyer, who worked with Jorge’s father, opened an investigation. Jorge shows the file with the newspaper clippings. The press extensively documented the case of his parents, Jorge Alberto Iglesias Lopez and Maria Hortencia de Iglesias.
The gang never forgets
In the years that followed, members of MS-13 continued to chase and intimidate Jorge and his family. But the police also thwarted the investigation by leaking confidential information to gang members. Eventually, the investigation into the murders was suspended.
Jorge’s aunt and uncle were granted asylum in the United States. Jorge and his brother and sister, who were underage and under the tutelage of another aunt and uncle, remained in El Salvador, but were constantly tracked by threats of the MS-13, even after they had moved several times.
Jorge: ‘In 2017, my family said, “The gang never forgets. You have no perspective in El Salvador. They’re not human beings, they’re animals.’ Finally, it took until June 2019 for Jorge, after new threats, to leave El Salvador with his sister and underage brother through Guatemala, with the help of a lawyer and the Lutheran Church. They lost all faith in the court and the police.
Why did he come to Belgium? ‘I wanted to go to a country where the maras (members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, ed.) don’t operate. And to a place where we can start a new life. I heard that there is a lot of discrimination in Germany and Spain. Belgium, as a multicultural country in the center of Europe, seemed like a good place to start over. We’d overcome the language barrier.’
Gang tattoo or not?
On June 12, 2019, Jorge, María and Carlos Iglesias landed in Zaventem. A few days later, they signed up at the Klein Kasteeltje, fedasil’s registration centre for asylum seekers. An extensive interview at the CGVS followed in February. The answer came in May and was negative.
‘I had the impression that the person who interviewed us had insufficient knowledge about the situation in El Salvador.’
The CGVS justified the rejection. Jorge: ‘I had stated that the boy who followed me had a tattoo of MS-13. But beforehand, a lawyer had recorded my story, and I had said, “I know he had a tattoo, but I didn’t dare look closely to see if it was MS-13. I think so, but I’m not sure.” In the interview, I wanted to explain that statement. That’s why they said my testimony was not coherent.”
‘They also asked why I hadn’t changed my family name if I was threatened so much,’ Jorge continues. ‘But just changing your family name is illegal. They also asked, “If the gang members threatened you like that, why didn’t they kill you?” How can I know? Sometimes they kill, randomly, sometimes they intimidate you. Why? Because we are the witnesses of our parents’ murder.”
‘In the answer, the CGVS describes our story as an economic problem. We do not have an ‘economic problem’ at all. Our parents had three houses, our family in the US supports us. I had the impression that the person who interviewed us did not have enough knowledge about the situation in El Salvador, and that the interpreter did not know enough to translate my story correctly. And if they don’t want us here, maybe they can send us to another country?’
Violence in Central America
El Salvador has the highest number of outgoing refugees of all the countries in Central America, according to recent figures from the UN refugee agency UNHCR. In the first half of 2020 alone, 187,232 Salvadorans fled their country. Taking shelter in a neighboring country does not offer an immediate solution, as the entire region faces problems such as extortion, death threats and other gang violence. A recent report by Unicef and UNHCR made this clear once again.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, about a million people are fleeing throughout Central America. Due to insecurity, persecution or extortion by criminal gangs, who often also prey on young children, or due to discrimination against LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, ed.) people.
The Central American countries are among the poorest in Latin America. COVID-19 and recent persistent hurricanes have exacerbated the difficult conditions in which most Central Americans live.
Mere guesswork or unclear criteria?
Jorge appealed the decision of the CGVS. The lawyer in charge of Jorge’s file did not wish to comment in order not to influence this procedure.
Lawyer Alexander Loobuyck of Halius Law Office in Bruges was willing to talk about his experience with asylum applications from Salvadorans. In the past two years he has received more than 200 of those applications in his practice.
What is striking in those files, Loobuyck tells us, is the apparent lack of consistency in the criteria for approval or rejection, when you compare different negative decisions. ‘Sometimes the assessment seems to be done from a gut feeling rather than from a thorough investigation and a coherent assessment framework.’
David Serlet, a sworn interpreter and associate of Loobuyck, adds, ‘Sometimes we hear, “You complained to the police and you know the police are corrupt. Surely that compromises your credibility.” And this week we had a woman who was reproached in her report, “You didn’t file a complaint with the police, you should have. So you have no credibility.”’
‘In the past, almost everyone was recognized,’ says Loobuyck. ’That’s not normal. After all, it’s not possible for everyone to have a credible story. But now they have made the shift to almost complete rejection, and that doesn’t make sense either. The policy used to be too lax, now it seems too strict.’
But the lawyer finds the apparent lack of consistency especially difficult to deal with. ‘I have the impression that decisions on asylum applications from people from, say, Colombia or Venezuela are better substantiated.’
‘The CGVS apparently assumes that it’s normal for people to be extorted.’
The majority of Salvadoran asylum seekers flee extortion by a gang. If the victim refuses to pay, they are threatened with death.
Sometimes the assessment of this practice by the CGRS seems based on perverted reasoning, David Serlet believes. ‘One then says in the final report, “You paid $300 every month, and you earned $800. But you say you couldn’t keep paying that amount and don’t explain to us why.” The CGVS apparently assumes that it is normal for people to be extorted.’
Gang violence and extortion, by the way, are not seen as political persecution, but as penal, criminal acts, where the gangs act out of economic motives. This type of threat is therefore not covered by the Geneva Convention and is therefore not a ground for recognition as a refugees.
Lawyer Loobuyck: ‘Salvadorans can only qualify for the status of subsidiary protection. That is a provision in the Immigration Law that is supposed to fill the gaps of the Geneva Convention. But even that status has hardly been granted to them recently.’
When a case is rejected, the asylum seeker can still appeal to the Council for Immigration Disputes. But practice shows that the chance of having the decision of CGVS reversed is small.
Assessing without proper knowledge
Salvadoran asylum seekers, as well as attorney Loobuyck, question the objectivity and expertise with which the interviews at the CGRS are conducted. It is the so-called protection officers of CGVS who conduct the interview. He or she is a key figure in the whole procedure. The protection officer is very decisive for the future of the asylum seeker, because his or her judgment is fundamental in the final decision on the asylum application.
We are told that some protection officers did not receive specific training for their interviews with asylum seekers from El Salvador. To prepare the interviews and assess the stories of asylum seekers, they relied on their personal knowledge of the situation. As a result, they had to make decisions without sufficient training.
Is the number of rejections for asylum applications from Salvadorans perhaps so high because it has to meet a predetermined quota? ‘There are no quotas, that would be absolutely against international law,’ says a former protection officer MO* spoke with.
‘The final assessment is based on the specific profile and vulnerability of that applicant,’ says the former protection officer. ‘To a middle-class man who is well-integrated, well-off and educated, you might ask, “Why haven’t you gone to the police?” But a single woman who is illiterate has fewer options. Asylum is an individual status, based on your concrete story, your family, your vulnerabilities and your skills.’
‘It’s a tough job. You have to make a decision that is very decisive for the future of these people.’
Yet there is always a personal element of more or less empathy at play, that is inevitable, notes the former protection officer. ‘If you previously worked in that particular country, or if you have experience on the ground with refugees and migrants, you listen differently than someone who has no experience or a very bureaucratic mindset.’
Also notable is the high turnover of interviewers. Does this have to do with the working conditions or with the procedure itself? The former protection officer we interviewed strongly denies this. She worked in this job for two and a half years. ‘That’s a maximum. It’s a tough job. Because of the testimonies you get to hear, people’s stories and the responsibility you have. You have to make a decision that is very decisive for the future of these people.’
‘And there’s another element,’ the former employee continued. ‘If you do this for too long, you do hear the same stories coming back. So someone takes over someone else’s story. It is not always easy to find out who is telling the real story and who is abusing it. Nevertheless, here too, the following applies: each asylum applicant must be listened to individually, and each applicant is entitled to recognition until proven otherwise.’
CGVS defends their approach
In a communication dated October 10, 2020, CGVS stated that the number of applications from El Salvador had increased significantly in the preceding months, but that this did not mean that applicants were systematically granted protection status. ‘Requests are assessed on individual merits,’ the communication stated.
Dirk Van den Bulck, General Commissioner of CGVS, in a conversation with MO*, justifies the change in policy regarding El Salvador. He formally denies that there would be any political pressure from the government or political parties.
According to Van den Bulck the change in policy has to do on the one hand with a changed situation in El Salvador and on the other hand with a more thorough screening of the increased number of asylum seekers from El Salvador, based on appropriate training of the interviewers. It was reported that in recent years asylum seekers from El Salvador sometimes received recognition without a prior interview.
The profile of asylum seekers from El Salvador has also changed, says Van den Bulck. The increase in the number of applications shows, he says, that some people come for family reunification with relatives who have already received protection, while they themselves are not at risk.
This does not mean, says Van den Bulck, that there would be no problem of security in El Salvador. This is also evident from the extensive country dossier used by CGVS itself.
‘People who are really at risk don’t sign up for voluntary returns. But some people still choose to do so while their application is still pending.’
We also presented Dirk Van den Bulck with the testimony of the ex-protection officer at the CGRS, who himself felt that he was insufficiently prepared for his task. The General Commissioner states that there is a general training for everyone, that specific training per country is not always necessary and that the applications of Salvadoran asylum seekers are not all that complicated. Moreover, he adds, if a protection officer feels inadequately prepared, he or she can always ask for help internally.
Van den Bulck denies that the protection officers are insufficiently prepared for their task: ‘This is also evident from the fact that the Council for Immigration Disputes almost never overrules our decisions on appeal. And from another fact: ‘People who are really in danger do not sign up for voluntary return. But some choose voluntary return while their application for an interview is pending, or while they already had an interview but are still waiting for the answer.’
However, most Salvadorans who opt for voluntary return do so after the appeal ruling has also been rejected. After that rejection, the asylum seekers are transferred to a detention center or start living in the street, without residency papers. The state then no longer provides them with shelter and food. They can then also no longer legally hold a job to support themselves.
‘CGVS conducted a thorough investigation into the situation in El Salvador in 2019,’ responds State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi (CD&V). ‘In addition, each asylum application is assessed individually. CGVS points out that in many files there are issues related to the actual risk or fear.’
‘The risk of persecution is assessed by the independent CGVS as part of the asylum procedure,’ Mahdi continued in his response. ‘There is no political intervention in that. The policy of CGVS was confirmed in November 2020 by the Council on Immigration Disputes in the Federal Parliament.’
Is El Salvador safer since the new government?
The changed situation in El Salvador, referred to by General Commissioner Van den Bulck, has to do with the declining murder rates and with a new law promulgated by the government of Nayib Bukele. That law should guarantee those internal refugees humanitarian aid and easier access to justice. In a December 2020 memo, CGVS also refers to a report by UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, which refers to this new legal and judicial framework.
El Salvador has as many as half a million internal refugees (“displaced persons” in technical terms), out of a population of 6.7 million.
Twenty people were killed in the first three days of 2021 alone.
But the new law has not yet entered into force and many are also questioning it, Rina Montti tells us. She is the director of the migration department of the NGO Cristosal, which focuses on the region of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The government of Nayib Bukele, who has been president since June 2019, is especially good at painting a rosy picture of its policies, Montti says. But the figures it releases are unreliable, and there is a lack of transparency in all areas.
Ludo Van de Velde, a Belgian former priest who has lived in El Salvador since the 1980s and closely follows current events there, confirms this. ‘According to official figures, the number of daily murders has dropped by more than half since the Bukele government came to power.’
‘A lot of criminal structures of the gangs have been disbanded,’ says Van de Velde. ‘Gang members are brought to justice, but many are released because there is not enough solid evidence and because mistakes were made at the time of the arrest and during the trial.’
In the first four months of 2020, El Salvador had 441 murders. That is 58 percent less than the 1059 murders during the same period last year, under the rule of previous President Sánchez Cerén (FMLN). But 20 people were murdered during the first three days of 2021 alone, which experts say is evidence of the country’s insecurity.
A secret agreement
The award-winning investigative media El Faro revealed in September 2020 that the Bukele government secretly negotiated with leaders of the MS-13 gang. The government wanted the murder rate to decrease and for MS-13 to support it in the upcoming elections. In return, it would ease prison sentences.
El Faro provided evidence of those negotiations: records of meetings, photographs, and official documents written by government officials. But President Nayib Bukele denies the existence of such an agreement.
Previous governments in El Salvador also set up such secret negotiations between politicians and gang members. Each time, they wanted to reduce the number of murders, for electoral gain, but those negotiations all failed. They just led to spikes in the number of homicides once the negotiations broke down. This was especially the case in 2015. Then El Salvador became the most murderous country in the world.
‘The new policy is committed to voluntary return and wants to inform and sensitize people about this.’
Is voluntary return an option for fleeing Salvadorans? Cristosal director Rina Montti doesn’t think so: “Those fleeing extortion are then called ‘economic refugees.’ If you are persecuted by the gang, you have no future in this region. Because the gangs are also active in neighboring countries.’
‘Secretary of State Mahdi has indeed made it clear in his policy statement that voluntary return is a pillar of the return policy,’ his cabinet informed in a response. ‘Voluntary return is done at the request of the individuals themselves. The new policy is committed to voluntary return and wants to inform and sensitize people about this. Those who do not want to participate will not be forced to do so.’
‘The voluntary return of the group of Salvadorans was done in cooperation with the IOM and Caritas’, the response also states.
The way back is no longer an option for many. Not even for asylum seeker Miguel Molina (34). He too became a victim of extortion. Every month the MS-13 demanded two hundred dollars from him, then they increased that amount to four hundred dollars. Miguel worked in a call center and they knew how much he earned. His asylum claim was rejected, with the motivation, “Why couldn’t you keep paying that amount, you had a good job, right?
But Molina is not giving up yet. He founded a Facebook group of Salvadoran refugees and is working on a letter, signed by Salvadoran asylum seekers, that he wants to deliver to the Federal Parliament. In it, he asks for a deeper look at the unsafe situation in El Salvador and for the negative opinions to be re-examined.
The original version of this article contained a testimony that has since been removed because the necessary level of anonymity could not be guaranteed.
Journalist Alma De Walsche has been following Latin America for several decades, with a special focus on the Andean countries.
Melissa Vida is a Salvadoran-Belgian freelance journalist and has previously written for American media (The New York Times, Foreign Policy) and the Latin American newspaper El Faro. She is also the editor at Global Voices for the Latin America region and editor-in-chief of the weekly newsletter Central American News.