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No easy solutions for tackling the Central American roots of the migration crisis

‘If you look at driving factors for people wanting to leave their countries of origin, these factors are going to remain and may get worse.’

People travel through a flooded street on a jet ski hull, the houses in the background are submerged by floodwaters.
A jet ski hull is used as a boat for checking on a home amid flooding from Hurricanes Eta and Iota in La Lima, Honduras on 9 December, 2020. Climate change-linked storms, poverty, and gang violence are main drivers of migration from the region. (Jose Cabezas/REUTERS)

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In March, a record number of children travelling alone entered the United States from Mexico irregularly, and the US federal agency tasked with preventing irregular migration carried out the most apprehensions at the country’s southern border in a single month for 15 years. 

But far from being the main crisis in the region, the sharp uptick in numbers is a byproduct of humanitarian emergencies playing out in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – collectively known as the Northern Triangle of Central America – where choosing to stay or leave is often a question of life and death, according to experts.

Read More → In northern Mexico, aid efforts struggle to keep pace with soaring migration needs

The COVID-19 pandemic’s exacerbation of pre-existing issues – including pervasive crime, high murder rates, government corruption, the effects of climate change, and economic hardship – has only increased the need for many in the region to migrate.  

“In the context of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and violence, it has become unavoidable that [many people’s] only choice is to move north,” Marcos Tamariz, the deputy head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, told The New Humanitarian. 

In January this year, 15 percent of people surveyed in the Northern Triangle and Nicaragua by the UN’s World Food Programme said they were making concrete plans to migrate – compared to 8 percent in 2018. 

A separate survey by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and UNICEF from the end of last year found that 20 percent of migrating families from the region left because of violence, including death threats, extortion, domestic violence, and recruitment by criminal groups. 

The number of people searching for jobs has also skyrocketed as COVID lockdowns have decimated economies, and criminal groups have expanded their control over people and territory in the Northern Triangle and Mexico since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Back-to-back hurricanes also devastated parts of Guatemala and Honduras at the end of last year, driving thousands from their homes. Months later, recovery efforts have been slow to get off the ground. Unsurprisingly, the majority of families and unaccompanied minors intercepted at the US southern border are from Guatemala and Honduras.

Tamariz said MSF continues to see 150 to 300 people leaving every day from San Pedro Sula – long seen as the most violent city in Honduras, and hit hard by the hurricanes in November.

Taking stock of the situation, experts say there are no quick and easy solutions and do not expect the crises pushing people to migrate to subside any time soon. 

“If you look at driving factors for people wanting to leave their countries of origin, these factors are going to remain and may get worse,” Luca Dall’Oglio, US chief of mission for the UN’s migration agency, IOM, told TNH. “People haven’t been able to recuperate what they lost. Some people have lost everything.” 

Tackling ‘the root causes’

US President Joe Biden has pledged to invest $4 billion to tackle “the root causes” of migration in the Northern Triangle – and has already asked Congress to approve $850 million in spending for that purpose as part of a discretionary budget request submitted earlier this month – after his predecessor largely disengaged from aid efforts in the region. 

The commitment has been welcomed by most observers, but administration officials and experts both caution that it will likely take a long time for the effects of ramped-up engagement to be felt.

“If you want to take this problem seriously, you need to invest significant amounts of resources in these countries for a significant amount of time at significant levels,” Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute think tank, told TNH. “These uneven flows of investment are not going to lead to sustainable change in the short term. To achieve concrete results will take decades.”

Biden’s plan will have to get the stamp of approval from a deeply divided US Senate and from regional governments – where talks got off to an uneven start recently – before it can move forward. 

In the meantime, the effects of the Trump administration’s withdrawal of aid funding are still being felt and are likely correlated to rising needs in the Northern Triangle, according to Meg Galas, country director of Northern Central America for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

“There has been a real desperation by NGOs that depend on US government funding. We are starting from the very bottom again,” said Galas, who is based in El Salvador. 

A “member state briefing” organised by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, in New York on 20 April highlighted humanitarian funding shortfalls while introducing “innovative” development strategies. One aim of the meeting was to encourage European countries and Canada to contribute to aid and development efforts in a region that has traditionally been part of the US sphere of influence, but it didn’t result in any concrete funding pledges.

“Unless we see a huge surge of humanitarian aid in the region, it will be very difficult for people to find work, find safe shelter, and feel that they have an ability to stay,” said Galas.

Short-term innovations?

As the Biden administration lays the groundwork of its longer-term strategy, calls are growing from regional experts and NGOs for new approaches to provide aid that will have an immediate effect on slowing emigration from the Northern Triangle.  

Increasing access to vaccines, food assistance, and targeting tailored assistance to areas that are most affected by the forces pushing people to migrate – such as the western highlands of Guatemala and areas around Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras – could be an efficient use of resources in the short-term, according to Ruiz Soto. 

The United States is also considering direct cash transfers to help address the economic issues driving migration from Central America as part of its response, and UN agencies and other aid groups are already using the practice in the region. 

“Cash transfers are a fantastic way to empower people to make their own decisions and keeps us from thinking that we know all the solutions. It’s a much smarter way to distribute aid in an emergency situation,” said Galas, from IRC.

Meanwhile, Dall’Oglio said IOM has proposed setting up resource centres in Guatemala for would-be migrants, internally displaced people, and migrants who have been deported from the United States or otherwise returned to the country. The centers would provide information about where to find shelter and access healthcare and coordinate services offered by NGOs, government, and international organizations.

Carrots and sticks 

While placing an emphasis on development and humanitarian assistance, the Biden administration also recently concluded agreements with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala for those countries to increase their use of security forces to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the US border – echoing similar agreements made by the Trump administration.

The continued US focus on migration enforcement in Mexico and Central America is a cause of concern for aid groups, who point to frequent abuses committed by members of security forces – including extortion, assassinations, and the indiscriminate use of force against vulnerable people – as a consequence of this approach.

With so many factors pushing people to migrate, “we cannot enforce our way out of the situation”, said Ruiz Soto.

“It is better to understand in a more humane way what are the needs and how they may be relieved,” said Tamariz, from MSF.

One of MSF’s priorities is to try to make the journey safer for people heading north – who are often preyed on by smugglers and organised crime groups, Tamariz said, noting that people are increasingly travelling in smaller, more vulnerable groups because larger groups – dubbed as “caravans” by the media – attract too much attention, allowing authorities in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico to easily track their movements and break them up.

“We cannot enforce our way out of the situation.”

The focus on enforcement has led to more people getting stuck while migrating. As a result, Mexico received its highest ever number of asylum applications last month – more than 9,000. Over half those who applied were from Honduras. The Mexican government expects to receive as many as 80,000 asylum requests this year.

“Mexico has increasingly become a country of destination for asylum seekers,” said Sybilla Brodzinsky, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Mexico.

Although it suffers from some of the same issues as the Northern Triangle countries and may not be the first country asylum seekers have in mind when they flee, many are able to settle in fairly safe locations or already have family connections. “People are finding safety and rebuilding their lives,” Brodzinsky added. 

With no end in sight to the movement of people north, regardless of the recommitment to humanitarian solutions and the continued focus on enforcement, IOM and others are calling on Washington to increase the legal pathways for asylum seekers and migrants to reach the United States to avoid the dangerous journeys altogether. Temporary visa programmes for agricultural and non-agricultural workers and humanitarian visas for people at risk are among the ideas being suggested.

For now, though, thousands of migrants expelled from the United States – or turned back by security forces on the journey north – are returning to communities “with the same frustrations and… the same causes that would push them to leave again,” said Tamariz. “It’s a cyclical situation.”

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