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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. Jose Cabezas/REUTERS
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.

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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.

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