Isabel, her partner and their two children live in a humid and mostly empty house in a village near the French border with Belgium. They have seen snow several times now, as it often covers the south of Belgium in January, and have become accustomed to the untrodden streets of the sleepy village. Isabel, a civil engineer from El Salvador, says she has learned to cook since arriving to Belgium. It helps ease her depression.
The closest shops selling Turkish and African goods are about an hour away by train and foot. There, the family can also find staples of Salvadoran cuisine: beans, corn flour, and when lucky, plantains.
While her husband, Luis, makes Salvadoran cheese from scratch, she boils beans several times in order to mash them without a blender. “I'm doing better now. I can cook two meals a day,” she says. “Before, it would only be one.”
Isabel has the fragile frame of someone who has lost a lot of weight quickly. Her complexion is gray and worn, with dark circles under her eyes. A few weeks before I met her in January, Belgian officials rejected the family's asylum request.
Isabel and her family came to Belgium in 2019 after repeated death threats from local criminal organizations. Her 18-year-old son, William, initially stayed with his biological father before joining his mother in Belgium and launching his own asylum case. He attempted suicide in El Salvador when MS-13 increased the extortion rate of his dad’s business from $500 dollars a month to $1,000, and finally to $3,000, which included the demand for a “Christmas bonus.”
Like Isabel and William, thousands of Central Americans have applied for asylum in Europe in recent years. Some ask for protection from gang violence, others from homophobia or violent misogyny, and others, yet, from political repression. Even though most have relatives in the United States, they deem the path through Mexico too expensive and dangerous, opting instead for Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and other European countries.
“While Central America is not a top region of origin for applicants in Europe, the numbers have been growing in recent years (excluding 2020) and the region therefore certainly remains on our radar,” Anis Cassar, a spokesman for the European Asylum Support Office, an agency of the European Union, told El Faro via email.
In 2011, 310 Central American asylum seekers came to Europe, according to official statistics. In 2019, more than 25,000 made the voyage. Numbers decreased in 2020, in part due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
With 5,425 cases in 2020, Honduras was the Central American country to send the most asylum seekers to Europe that year, surpassing El Salvador for the first time. Guatemalans migrate to Europe at a lesser rate. There are very few cases from Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize.
When seeking protection in Europe, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans overwhelmingly opt for Spain. Most Salvadorans seek asylum in Spain, but also try to rebuild their life in Italy, Belgium and more recently, the United Kingdom.
The European Union and United Kingdom do not require a special visa for Central Americans. Once asylum seekers who fly to Europe as tourists arrive at the airport or within the country’s borders, they are able to make their case.
Numbers of undocumented Central Americans in Europe are unavailable, according to migrant rights organizations. There are between 3.9 and 4.8 million undocumented migrants living in Europe.
For Juan, Europe promised a life free from homophobia. After being repeatedly assaulted in El Salvador due to his sexual identity, he searched online for a place to flee, and Belgium ranked high in a list of “gay friendly countries.” On top of saving his life, Juan wanted to build it; he wanted a country where he may find love, marry, and adopt children without fear.
“I do want to get married, maybe adopt a child. This is the kind of thing one dreams of, right?,” said Juan. He was thrilled when the social worker automatically put “LGBT” on his file without asking him. “Here, they acknowledge the community, they respect the community,” he says with glee.
Except for Milan or Madrid, where Salvadoran communities have been settling for decades, many small European villages are welcoming Central Americans for the first time. Even in larger cities, such as Glasgow or Brussels, it would have been extremely rare to bump into a Salvadoran on the street a few years ago. Times have changed.
“There was basically no presence at all, and then all of a sudden, in 2017, I started meeting two families, then five families, and by the end of 2017, I had met 10 Salvadoran families in Glasgow,” recalled Luz Cáceres Paton, a Salvadoran doctoral candidate in theater studies at the University of Glasgow.
In 2021, Luz can now have pupusas and tamales home-delivered, something she says was “unthinkable” when she first arrived in Scotland in 2011. The UK’s central offices disperse asylum seekers throughout the UK, and increasingly in Scotland, in order to relieve the system in England.
Central Americans rely on stores specialized in Turkish, Arab, and African goods to find Latin American ingredients. At home, they make chicharrón (a sort of shredded pork common in Central American dishes) with French rillettes, and convert Turkish cheese into a staple Salvadoran cheese, queso fresco. Finding corn on the cob in stores is difficult or expensive, so Central Americans sometimes sneak onto corn fields to snatch a couple for their soups. It’s not uncommon to hear that people have “learned to make a pupusa” while being in Europe thanks to YouTube videos and a dash of nostalgia.
Marlon, who is one of the hundred recognized refugees in Sweden, says his wife can now recreate all Salvadoran dishes at home. The “only thing missing is Pollo Campero,” she quips, referring to the famous Central American fried chicken chain. In Sweden, 95 Salvadorans out of 1425 applicants have been recognized as refugees in the last ten years.
In Brussels, a few Salvadorans have started selling their pupusas to the diaspora community. Often, clients would have to book their dish in advance – good pupusas are still rare in Belgium and, when they do pop up, sell out quickly.
Over the past decade, the chances of Central Americans gaining protection in Europe has waxed and waned. For Guatemalan and Honduran applicants, asylum approval rates peaked in 2016 at 50 percent. In 2018, Salvadorans won nearly 70 percent of their cases across Europe. By 2019, however, Europe started denying more Central Americans, with the exception of Nicaraguans who mostly applied for asylum in Spain, especially since 2018, when the government responded to widespread protests with a severe crackdown.
In 2020, more than three-quarters of Central American asylum seekers had their requests denied in Europe.
“The system is saturated,” Jacobo explains over Zoom. Jacobo is a former Nicaraguan medical student who played a part in the anti-government protests in his country. He first fled to Honduras, and then tried Belize and finally Guatemala before opting to leave the region completely in search of a country that “respects human rights,” he told me. After spending the night outside of the migration offices to file his asylum case in November 2019, he received the date of his first asylum interview: November 2020. He was told that he would receive his work permit six months later, forcing him to survive without legal work for about a year and a half.
The United Kingdom, Belgium, and Sweden place asylum seekers in shelters or publicly-subsidized housing. In Spain, however, the system is overloaded and asylum seekers often must fend for themselves without state support.
Jacobo endured COVID-19 confinement with help from his family and charitable NGOs who gave him food. He changed his sleep schedule so that he would only have to eat twice a day. Solidarity from Nicaraguans, and Latinos more generally, has been scarce, he says.
“There are not many Central American organizations because Central American migration is more recent,” he says. “I haven’t seen much solidarity between Latinos. I received more help from the Spanish,” he said. “But maybe it’s because we all need to survive.”
In 2019, there were 42,249 Nicaraguans, 16,093 Salvadorans, and 96,382 Hondurans registered in Spain’s city halls. During confinement, the Salvadoran organization “La Voz de Salvadoreños en España” gave food and legal help to Salvadoran families and lobbied the Salvadoran government to help its citizens in Europe. “Spain is a big sender of remittances,” Alex Anaya, the president of La Voz, told El Faro over WhatsApp. His dream is to extend branches of his association to other parts of Europe. He’s already started reaching out to contacts in Belgium.
Spain only recently started to recognize asylum cases from El Salvador and Honduras – though only around 10 percent of cases were accepted in 2019 and 2020following a new ruling from Spain’s appeals court. “The beneficiaries are mainly LGBT people, women facing gender-based violence, and people from specific groups, such as former police officers,” Elena Muñoz, lawyer at the Spanish Commission for Refugee Assistance (CEAR), a pro-migrant NGO, told El Faro. Most Central Americans hope that if their asylum request is denied, they will receive residency status after three years of living and working, albeit informally, in the country.
Belgium has had the most dramatic change of asylum approval rate for Salvadorans, plunging from 97 percent to 10 percent between 2018 and 2020. By comparison, Belgium’s overall asylum rate decreased by 14 percent in the last couple of years.
Belgium used to recognize gang violence and extortion as grounds for protection, but not anymore. Refugee offices told the local press that the change in policy for Salvadoran asylum seekers took into account a “a changed situation in El Salvador” and “a more thorough screening of the increased number of asylum seekers from El Salvador.” Asylum interviewers also claim not to have been trained about Salvadoran conditions before taking on cases.
“Bonjour,” Laura, Isabel’s 9-year-old daughter, said with a perfect French accent while strolling into the living room. Throughout our conversation, Isabel’s children passed through the room, occasionally saying hello.
Laura is the only non-Belgian in her school. When her classmates come to play at her house, Isabel takes all the children to the supermarket to learn what they like to eat, and usually, Isabel ends up buying them French fries with the family’s weekly stipend of 150 euros. “I’m not sure they’d like empanadas,” she says with a smile.
The family’s legal uncertainty weighs on Laura. Once, when running errands with her mother, she flung herself at a pole and screamed, “No, they won’t take me out of here, I’ll wrap myself on this pole and no one will take me out of this country,” her mother recalls.
William, Laura’s 18-year-old brother, deals with his emotions differently. He has not talked much since he and his family were denied asylum.
'There is no evidence that the gang graffiti they put on the wall of your house has anything to do with extortion problems. That's speculation on your part,” the refusal letter read. The asylum interviewers did not find William’s evidence — a handwritten gang threat on a piece of paper — credible, noting that the threat had “no date” and that the gang did not sign it.
Alexander Loobuyck, a lawyer who has handled over 200 Salvadoran asylum cases, highlights contradictions in the state’s rejections. “If you have filed the complaint to the police, they blame you for filing a complaint, because you know that the police is infiltrated [by gangs], but if you do not file a complaint, they blame you for not searching for national protection first,” he told El Faro over the phone from his office in Bruges.
Dr. Ellen Van Damme, criminologist who studied gangs in Honduras, explains, “There is a lack of will to leave our cultural conditioning. [The refugee offices] don't understand that we grew up in different worlds,” she tells me in her living room in Brussels. “For example, we were born in Belgium, where we have all the confidence in the authorities and in our neighbors. In Central America, no, you can't even give details to your own neighbor, let alone trust the police.”
William declined to speak with me. His mother said that he has been retraumatized in Belgium in an intense interview process she likens to an FBI interrogation. Dr. Van Damme says this style of interview constitutes “revictimization of asylum seekers.”
Isabel told me that William would say: “Mom, the situation of Salvadorans is so hard right now. No matter if you lie, tell the truth, kneel down, don't kneel down, cry, don't cry, in the end they will always tell you 'no.’”
Isabel filed an appeal as a last legal resort, but it was also denied. The family fears the police might come and deport them or take away their house. They are now hoping that William’s appeal will reverse the course of their asylum.
In 2019, the European Union deported 360 Salvadorans. Last year, Belgium launched its program of “voluntary returns” to El Salvador, in which at least 120 Salvadorans were sent back to the country. “El Salvador is not Albania, getting back to Belgium is expensive,” tweeted Belgium’s State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi, back in December 2020.
Isabel is adamant on not returning to El Salvador, where she believes their days are numbered. She is weighing staying undocumented in Belgium, even though its labor market is strictly regulated, and has considered moving to Spain.
“Instead of finding someone to protect me,” Isabel said, this country “is judging me, pointing at me, and calling me a liar.”