For Central Americans, Fleeing to Europe May Beat Trying to Reach U.S.

BRUSSELS — For María Marroquín, life in El Salvador had become intolerable. Gang members extorting money had killed merchants in the market where she worked. She feared for her 27-year-old son, David, after a cousin had been kidnapped and was never found.

So last year, Ms. Marroquín, now 53, decided to flee the country. But unlike many Salvadorans making a similar, wrenching decision, she headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe instead of joining the tens of thousands of people trekking north in hopes of reaching the United States and seeking asylum there.

“Going to the United States would be crazy right now,” she said, citing the Trump administration’s push for tougher immigration policies. An increasing number of Central Americans have been weighing their options and begun heading to Europe instead.

The number seeking asylum in Europe has increased nearly 4,000 percent in the last decade, according to official figures, and the rate of arrivals is accelerating. Nearly 7,800 applied for asylum in Europe last year, up from 4,835 in 2017.

The distance may be greater, but many have found that the journey to Europe is safer and much cheaper than paying smugglers to get through Mexico to the United States.

Ms. Marroquín has another son in Belgium, who filled out the paperwork to allow her, along with her husband, her daughter and David, to enter as tourists. When she had saved enough money, she booked a flight to Brussels. A few days after arriving, they applied for asylum.

Suyapa Portillo, an associate professor at Pitzer College who has studied Central American migration, said that the bar for entering Europe was lower because a visa is not required for entry, as it is for the United States.

Spain is the first choice for many Central Americans because of the shared language, established networks of friends and family and opportunities to work in the informal economy.

Another draw is the perception that the authorities are more tolerant, particularly after considering the danger and expense likely to be involved in a journey to the United States. For those traveling outside migrant caravans, that trip can cost as much as $10,000.

Soldiers patrolling the San Marta­n market in San Salvador, where extortion by gangs is common.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

Alejandro Hernández, 25, a Salvadoran who sought asylum in Spain, said crossing Mexico would have been a bad investment.

“My family members each paid $8,000 to smugglers,” he said, “and some tried four times to reach the United States and failed.”

He also cited other challenges of the journey: fatigue, thirst and hunger; Mexico’s organized crime; and what he saw as the tightened immigration and asylum policies under President Trump.

Mr. Hernández’s own journey to Europe cost him $2,000: the price of a plane ticket to Spain and a hotel reservation to show the authorities that he was there as a tourist.

“I feel that it is more expensive to go to the United States, and in the end you’re not sure you’ll arrive,” he said.

Mr. Hernández applied for asylum in March 2018, but because of the backlog, it may be years before he receives a response from the Spanish government. In the meantime, he works in pig farms near Barcelona.

An estimated 8,000 asylum cases from Central America are pending in Spain, and the backlog is not shrinking appreciably. Eurostat said the country granted asylum to fewer than 15 Hondurans or Salvadorans in all of 2018, and a total of 30 in the first quarter in 2019.

The Spanish Asylum and Refugee Office said most of the asylum applications from Central Americans were based on the threat of gang violence — an entrenched problem in many countries in the region, and one often cited by asylum seekers.

But Spain rarely recognizes gang violence as a reason for granting asylum. A spokeswoman for the asylum and refugee office said that many claims of persecution did not justify international protection. In many cases, she added, there was effective protection from the national authorities of origin. That view has generally been supported in Spanish courts.

Those who are denied asylum can appeal the decision, extending their legal stay in Spain.

Belgium has proved to be an increasingly attractive destination for Central American migrants. It is now the third most popular European country for Salvadorans seeking refuge, after Spain and Italy. The difference is still big — last year, 2,311 Salvadorans applied for asylum to Spain, while 288 applied to Belgium — but the numbers fleeing to Belgium are growing; 244 have applied in the first four months of this year. The country received 25 Central American asylum seekers in 2014 and none 10 years ago.

Migrants walking through a makeshift camp in a park in Brussels in 2015.CreditEmannuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Unlike Spain, Belgium recognizes gang violence as a reason for granting refuge. It approved 80 asylum seekers’ cases in this first quarter of the year, Eurostat said.

Dirk Van den Bulck, Belgium’s commissioner for refugees and stateless persons, said his country considered gang victims to be unable to receive protection from the Salvadoran government and therefore eligible for asylum.

“We have a solid system: We give the status and protection to those who need it, independent of other factors, even if we know, or even if it can be, that this could attract more migrants,” Mr. Van den Bulck said.

The Belgian authorities gave refugee status to 281 of the 288 Salvadoran asylum seekers whose cases were processed last year, according to the country’s office for refugees and stateless persons.

Most Central Americans heading for Europe, however, do not apply for asylum protection, instead overstaying their tourist visas — generally in Spain or Italy. There are no official figures on how many immigrate in this way, but some estimates say the number is many thousands higher than those applying through official routes.

Officials watch the asylum requests closely, as an increase in applications from one region can delay those from others.

“For now, Central America is not a region of particular concern, but the increasing number of asylum seekers from the region has been flagged,” said Anis Cassar, a spokesman for the European Asylum Support Office, an agency of the European Union. “It’s on the radar.”

In a refugee center in central Belgium, four members of the Marroquín family share a room. They have access to a cafeteria and bathroom facilities. Ms. Marroquín said the major challenge was boredom, but she believes families are treated well. To distract herself, she said, she often goes to her other son’s home in nearby Enghien to cook traditional Salvadoran dishes, using the bags of corn and rice flour she brought in her suitcases.

Ms. Marroquín said that most of the rest of her family lived in the United States, but she expressed satisfaction with her decision to come to Belgium, adding that she felt her son David was now safe. She said she expected others to take the same path.

“More are going to come here,” she said.