Reuters International

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gang violence is forcing thousands of Hondurans to leave their homes every month to seek safety in other neighbourhoods and provinces of the Central American nation, a problem that is invisible but growing, says the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

Honduras is one of the world's deadliest nations. It is estimated there are around 23,000 gang members involved in turf wars and almost daily shoot-outs with police.

The Honduran capital Tegucigalpa and the country's industrial city of San Pedro Sula have the highest murder rates outside a war zone, the UNHCR said.

The country's two most powerful armed gangs known as maras - Calle 18 and their rivals the Mara Salvatrucha - control entire city neighbourhoods.

"The number of people fleeing violence inside Honduras has seen a constant rise since December 2015," the UNHCR said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Many of these people are fleeing urban violence fuelled by a war between gangs or maras, widespread extortion, threats, forced recruitment, sexual violence and insecurity in general."

In May around 360 families - at least 1,000 people - fled their homes because of gang violence in one neighbourhood of the capital alone and sought refuge in other areas of the country, the UNHCR said.

The government estimates 174,000 Hondurans were internally displaced across the country because of gang violence between 2004 and 2014.

The UNHCR said it had helped 41 people who were uprooted within Honduras during the first five months of this year, nearly double the number in 2015.

"The problem is invisible as most people don't report being forcibly displaced for fear of reprisals," UNHCR spokeswoman Francesca Fontanini told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."

HIDDEN IN SLUMS

Rights group say families can be forced to leave their homes within a matter of hours, often following direct threats from gang members. This can include gang members demanding extortion payments or that children join their gangs.

Families seek refuge in other neighbourhoods in the same city or town, usually moving from one slum area to another.

This means many uprooted Hondurans remain hidden and are not registered as being displaced, the UNHCR said.

Others move to different provinces and rural areas within Honduras, often staying with friends and relatives until they can find rented accommodation.

Pupils and teachers are also caught up in the gang warfare, the UNHCR said.

In recent weeks non-governmental groups report that schools in the country's northeast have received around 100 requests from parents asking for their children to be transferred to schools elsewhere in Honduras to escape gang violence and threats, the UNHCR said.

Chaloka Beyani, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced people, said in a report in April that internal displacement in Honduras was a precursor to migration.

The UNHCR said increasing numbers of Hondurans were seeking asylum in Latin American countries and in the United States.

More than 14,600 Hondurans applied for refugee status worldwide in 2015, nearly double the figure in 2014, it said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Emma Batha.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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