In January 2021, over 8,000 migrants left San Pedro Sula for the United States, fleeing the insecurity, poverty, and uncertainty of Honduras, a situation that had worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the grave impacts of Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Participating in this caravan were approximately 300 members of the LGBTQI+ community, of whom 100 were trans woman. “We walk together to minimise verbal and physical harassment”, they noted, referring to the risks they face on the journey northwards.
The International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) report “Causes of Forced Migration Associated with Violence towards LGBTI Persons”, identifies insecurity and exclusion based on sexual orientation and gender identity as one of the main causes behind the migration of LGBTI+ Hondurans. The data support this conclusion. The Central American country has one of the world’s highest rates of hate crimes and transfemicides, with 388 violent deaths recorded between 2009 and 2021, according to data from the Cattrachas Lesbian Network. The situation is particularly worrying for trans women. There have been over 120 recorded murders of trans women over the past decade, and their life expectancy is less than 35 years.
Homophobia, lesbophobia, and transphobia are so ingrained in Honduran society that trans women feel unwelcome in their own country. “Exclusion, poverty, familial abuse, discrimination in our neighbourhood, feeling like I was different… and above all hearing people saying that they did not want sissies in the family… All of this just made me think of leaving Honduras when I was 15 years old”, explains J-Lo Córdova, who is currently a human rights defender and coordinator of the Muñecas de Arcoiris trans women’s group. Despite this situation, there are no accurate statistics on the migration of Honduran trans women. The invisibility of this population is due to the lack of a category related to sexual orientation or gender identity in the instruments used by the National Statistics Institute of Honduras.
The Risks on the Road
Discrimination against trans women does not end when they leave Honduras. Instead, it intensifies as they pass through Mexico, which they consider a hostile transit country. In addition to the high levels of human rights violations against the migrant population in general (assaults, muggings, kidnappings, sexual violence, etc.), Mexico has Latin America’s second-highest rates of transfemicides. While already dealing with xenophobia, trans women are stigmatised throughout the journey for their gender identity and sexual orientation. “I left Honduras with a trans colleague from work. The most difficult experience was when we were travelling through Mexico. My friend fell on the train coupling. Her foot was trapped, and totally destroyed. As a trans woman, walking that route was difficult, because the physical violence was constant, and sexual harassment came in many forms. As I was young, I felt vulnerable. I remember that really well: I was cold, hungry, and very afraid”, J-Lo Córdova recalls.
In order to reduce some of the risks, many trans women decided to travel in pairs or groups. This is the case of the “Rainbow 17 Caravan”, a means of self-protection against attacks, coyotes, gangs, and state authorities. However, such measures also bring a greater level of visibility to trans women while migrating, which can increase the risks they face due to their greater chances of being identified. Moreover, Migrant Shelters are not always a safe space for these women. There are still very few shelters that provide specialised attention to the protection needs of LGBT migrants. Furthermore, migrants continue to report discrimination in certain Shelters managed by the Catholic Church. As a result, trans women and other migrants constantly find themselves trying to flee heteropatriarchal spaces that put them in situations of increased vulnerability and fear.
Grecia O’Hara, a trans woman, human rights defender, and currently communications officer with Somos CDC, also describes her experience travelling through Mexico. “The Military Police and Migration Police detained me on the way from Tapachula to Mexico City. I was held in a cell for three days, and when I was trapped there, I experienced the worst thing that could ever happen to me. I suffered sexual abuse, and as a result I immediately returned to Honduras. I knew it would be easier to get the post-exposure prophylaxis there, and I had to take it within 72 hours. I knew that if I requested asylum, they would leave me waiting for weeks, even up to six months. That wasn’t an option”.
The United States is not Safe Either
Requesting asylum in Mexico or appearing before US authorities does not guarantee better conditions for the trans women who decide to migrate. Although members of the LGBTI+ community represent just 0.14% of those held in custody by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they experience 12% of the sexual and physical abuse recorded in detention centres, according to data from Humans Rights Campaign.
Over recent years, trans women have also reported harassment, assaults, abuse, and the denial of necessary medical attention in official detention centres. For example, in 2017 trans women were typically detained for over double the average period for all migrants. According to Human Rights Watch, solitary confinement is more frequently applied to trans women, who can spend several months in jails or detention centres with prison-like conditions while they await a court decision on whether to accept their requests for asylum, or deport them.
In 2018, trans woman Roxana Hernández died while held in ICE custody in New Mexico. Hernández had been transferred to various holding centres throughout the United States, and even spent five days in one of the dreaded “ice-boxes”, cells with extremely low temperatures. She was finally hospitalised with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV. Organisations that accompany migrants described the event as an “institutional murder”.
On the migrant trail, trans women not only have to deal with violence and assaults, but also a multitude of legal, police, bureaucratic, and procedural obstacles from the moment they request asylum. These obstacles keep them in a state of complete vulnerability. In fact, many trans women end up returning to Honduras due to the impossibility of advancing their asylum requests. In addition to being forced to sign a document of detention and deportation from the country in which they requested asylum (like the majority of migrants who request protection), they are also exposed to degrading treatment and denial of support from the very authorities who are responsible for their protection. “The Honduran consul never arrived. Instead, he sent a very pretentious representative, who treated us very badly. I never had the opportunity to stay. I knew that remaining in detention would mean that I would have serious health problems as a result of what happened to me”, Grecia O’Hara explains.
Returning to Where they Started
The trans women who are forced to return to Honduras find themselves in a country that remains trapped in the cycle of violence that led them to their decision to leave. “Returning to Honduras was difficult, as I had to perform sex work so that I could earn money and get back to Tegucigalpa”, J-Lo Córdova recalls. In fact, in light of the lack of progress made in recent years, in Honduras’s most recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2020, at least 19 states recommended that Honduras improve its protection of the LGBTI+ community, and combat the discrimination, high rates of impunity, and lack of investigations the community faces.