Migration and forced displacement in Central America

By Martin Mowforth

Key words: migration; forced displacement; Central America; Norther Triangle countries; UNHCR data; refugees; asylum seekers.

In early December [2020], data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relating to refugees in and asylum seekers from Central American countries showed the following:.

  • There are around 470,000 refugees and asylum seekers from the north of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) throughout the world.
  • There are more than 97,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Mexico from Central America.
  • There are over 318,000 internally displaced people in Honduras and El Salvador.
  • Over 102,000 Nicaraguans have left their country during 2020.

The UNHCR website explains that:

“Growing numbers of people in Central America are being forced to leave their homes. … Compounded by socio-economic instability and poverty, they are escaping gang violence, threats, extortion, recruitment into gangs or prostitution, as well as sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people – collectively known as LGBTI – are also feeling persecution. Many more are displaced more than once within their own countries or have been deported back home, often into dangerous situations.”

“The escalating situation of chronic violence and insecurity, coupled with COVID-19-related restrictions, is exacerbating hardship and persecution for tens of thousands of people in Central America, who now have limited means of finding protection and making ends meet.”

The UNHCR website cites Raúl who fled with his family from El Salvador to neighbouring Guatemala: “We had our own bakery in El Salvador, until gangs arrived, and we could no longer sell bread. We were threatened out of our country.”

Whilst there are similar factors at play in the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – as described in the UNHCR quote above – the situation in Nicaragua has rather different recent causes. In the case of Nicaragua, the UNHCR puts the number of refugee and asylum seekers down to political persecution. Whilst this may explain the motives of some of those included in the data, the UNHCR data should be questioned as many of the applications from Nicaraguans for asylum or refugee status or citizenship within Costa Rica come from Nicaraguans who are already resident in Costa Rica or are regular economic migrants who travel seasonally to work on the Costa Rican plantations or who do domestic work there.

Indeed, the UNHCR is accused of manufacturing a ‘refugee crisis’ by John Perry who explains in more detail the misuse of data in his article ‘Nicaraguans in Costa Rica: A Manufactured ‘Refugee’ Crisis’ which is also included as the next item in this month’s additions to The Violence of Development website (December 2020).

Nicaraguans in Costa Rica: A Manufactured ‘Refugee’ Crisis

There is undoubtedly a refugee and migrant crisis in Central America, one that has fuelled the migrant caravans from the Northern Triangle countries to the United States over the last two years. But the data is not always 100 per cent reliable, as John Perry explains here. We are grateful to John for permission to reproduce his article which first appeared in the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) at: https://www.coha.org/nicaraguans-in-costa-rica-a-manufactured-refugee-crisis/

March 23, 2020  

By John Perry
Masaya, Nicaragua

Key words: CoronavirusCosta RicaCOVID-19Nicaragua; refugees; economic migrants.

  • The situation has mostly normalized in Nicaragua and yet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is promoting an imminent refugee crisis narrative.
  • 80% of the recent asylum requests came from people who had been living and working in Costa Rica without documents, before Nicaragua’s crisis of April 2018.
  • In 2018 Costa Rica approved only six asylum claims; by May 2019 it had approved a total of 24, and by then it had also rejected 1,300 as being “economic migrants,” not genuine asylum seekers.
  • In 2018, over 800,000 Nicaraguans were coming and going from Costa Rica: 48% of those were travelling back to Nicaragua. Numbers rose to 830,000 in 2019.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Organisation for World Peace, and some of the mainstream media, are raising the spectre that a crisis is unfolding because of increased refugee emigration from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. Yet neither the empirical data on migration between these two Central American nations nor the return to normalcy in Nicaragua support this argument. The coronavirus pandemic, which has led to tighter border closures between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, is putting a spotlight on this issue. Here we examine the history of the Nicaraguan immigrant presence in Costa Rica and argue that projections of a refugee crisis are not consistent with the evidence.

The coronavirus epidemic is still in its early stages in Central America but it has already put a focus on Costa Rica’s dependency on workers from Nicaragua. At any one time there are around 400,000 Nicaraguans working in the neighbouring country, especially doing building work, domestic work, as security guards or in agriculture. Given that a large proportion are undocumented, the real figure could be much higher, a very significant addition to Costa Rica’s population of under five million people. Yet the Vice-President of Costa Rica, Epsy Campbell, made a call this month to employers to persuade their Nicaraguan workers to stay put over the coming Easter holidays when otherwise they might leave to see their families.[1] She was clearly worried about the impact on Costa Rica’s economy if workers left the country and were unable to return because of the restrictions at the border resulting from the coronavirus epidemic.

 

President Alvarado promotes the refugee narrative while peace returns to Nicaragua.

So the current epidemic has brought grudging recognition by Costa Rica of the importance of ‘Nicas’ to its economy. Yet until just a few weeks ago, Costa Rica’s president Carlos Alvarado was making regular calls for help to deal with the numbers pleading asylum in the country since the attempted coup in Nicaragua in April 2018.

Alvarado has cultivated a close relationship with the UN High Commission for Refugees, whose officials have praised Costa Rican institutions during their regular visits. Last year they awarded his government $650 million to meet the “challenge” created by the ongoing ‘crisis’ in Nicaragua, even though by then Costa Rica’s neighbour had long been at peace.[2]

 

UNHCR claims of “refugee outflows” from Nicaragua not substantiated by the data

Then on March 10 this year 2020, even as the coronavirus crisis was escalating, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), suddenly decided to dramatize a problem that most people had thought was being steadily resolved. Its spokesperson Shabia Mantoo asserted that 4,000 Nicaraguans “continue to flee their country” every month, principally to Costa Rica.[3] “With no political resolution in sight”, she tweeted, “refugee outflows [are] expected to continue,” making no reference to the amnesties in Nicaragua for those who left for Costa Rica and the promises of safe return.[4] Despite the UNHCR giving no source for its claim that 4,000 Nicaraguans continue to flee abroad, its message was accepted as authoritative and quickly picked up by international media. The Guardian, for example, warned that the “exodus [is] expected to continue… amid fears of [a] repeat of state and police repression.”[5] The Organisation for World Peace went much further, making the absurd claim that Nicaragua threatens to cause the world’s next big refugee crisis.[6]

 

A porous border that ensures work for thousands of Nicaraguans

In this situation, especially as both countries face a real crisis produced by the coronavirus pandemic, cool heads are needed. These alarmist stories are not only bereft of real facts, but appear to be written by people ignorant of the historic economic and social ties between these two countries, which are much stronger than, for example, either country’s relationship with its neighbours to the north (Honduras) or the south (Panama). At the end of 2018, almost 350,000 Nicaraguans were officially recognised as residents in Costa Rica, a figure which had grown by only 10,000 during the year of Nicaragua’s crisis.[7] Many more, possibly even the same number again, are believed to live and work undocumented in Costa Rica. This is made possible by the long and porous land border: there are said to be 20 or more unofficial crossing places, many of them known to authorities on both sides. Nicaraguans can easily cross into Costa Rica, work for perhaps six months harvesting coffee or picking bananas, and return home with their wages, no questions asked. Most Nica families, especially in rural areas, have someone who has done this.

The reality is that huge numbers of Nicaraguans travel in both directions across the border on a daily basis. For example, official figures show that in March 2018, a month before the crisis, 33,000 Nicaraguans headed south while 44,000 returned home. The whole of 2018 saw over 800,000 Nicaraguans coming and going: 48% of those were travelling back to Nicaragua, a country which according to the UNHCR was (and still is) in “political and social crisis”. Numbers rose to 830,000 in 2019, now almost evenly split between those travelling in either direction.[8] Indeed, extra demand led the long-distance bus companies operating between the two countries to increase their services. And, of course, the large volume of undocumented border crossings must be added to these official figures.

 

Just a handful of Nicaraguan asylum claims have been granted by Costa Rica

How does this help us understand the “refugee outflow” from Nicaragua? First, we have to ask whether the figures being quoted are plausible. Costa Rican migration figures show a total of just under 55,000 applications for asylum by Nicaraguans in the past two years (23,063 in 2018[9] and approximately 31,500[10] in 2019). Assuming these accurately reflect the bureaucratic process, they are significantly below the figure of 77,000 given by the UNHCR.[11] Even if all of the 55,000 were new arrivals, the numbers are very small as a proportion of Nicaraguans officially crossing into Costa Rica. For example, in 2018 asylum requests came from less than 6% of those officially counted as crossing the border that year, and of course this would be an even smaller proportion if illegal border crossings were taken into account.[12] Even counting its non-Nicaraguan asylum seekers, Costa Rica has just 0.05% of the global total of nearly 75 million people classified as “of concern” to the UNHCR.[13] It seems Costa Rica is far from facing “the world’s next big refugee crisis.”

 

Most “refugees” are actually economic migrants

What is more, the 55,000 claims appear to include many that aren’t genuine. President Alvarado acknowledged in August 2018 that more than 80% of the recent asylum requests came from people who had been living in Costa Rica without documentsbefore Nicaragua’s crisis of April 2018.[14] In other words, four out of five asylum seekers were (according to the Costa Rican government itself) judged to be economic migrants, living in the country already and now trying to take advantage of the crisis to regularise their status. This might explain why Costa Rica is approving very few of these applications: in 2018 it approved only six; by May 2019 it had approved a total of 24, and by then it had also rejected 1,300 as being “economic migrants,” not genuine asylum seekers. During 2018, Nicaraguan applicants had one chance in 3,800 of being officially accepted, whereas asylum seekers from El Salvador (for example) had a one in ten chance. Nicaraguans also accounted for 84% of the 1,181 people deported in 2018. In addition, Costa Rica gave over 4,800 Nicaraguan asylum seekers permission to work, instead of recognising them as refugees, officially accepting that they were there to obtain jobs.[15]

The UNHCR not only exaggerates – probably by a very big margin – the number of genuine asylum seekers in Costa Rica, it goes on to claim that there are 4,000 new asylum seekers per month, expecting “these numbers to grow”.[16] This amounts to forecasting in excess of 50,000 new cases over the course of 2020, or a near doubling of the total reached at the end of 2019. It seems little more than a figure plucked from the air. Why would more people leave now than at the peak of the crisis in 2018? Is the UNHCR unaware that, by the Costa Rican government’s own admission, more than three-quarters of cases arise from Nicaraguans already living there? If, as the enduring presence of Nicaraguan labour in Costa Rica indicates (and is implied by the Costa Rican government’s decisions on cases) the pressure to emigrate from Nicaragua to Costa Rica is mainly an economic one, why would one expect more people to leave as the Nicaraguan economy recovers from the damage done by the roadblocks and other disruptions in 2018? Of course, both economies are now susceptible to damage as a result of the pandemic, but if anything this will lead to less movement across the border as security measures tighten.

The 2019 report Dismissing the Truth noted that some informal interviews carried out with Nicaraguan asylum seekers in Costa Rica confirmed what President Alvarado had said about many being economic migrants.[17] Of those who were recent arrivals, some said they were not fleeing persecution but rather had been affected by the intense economic crisis produced in Nicaragua by the blockading of cities by opposition gangs in the period April-July 2018, which meant that businesses closed down and many workers lost their jobs. Some had fled because they had committed crimes when controlling the roadblocks and were well aware they would be held accountable if they stayed. Those in this category included (for example) the criminals responsible for the kidnap, torture and murder of the unarmed police officer Gabriel de Jesús Vado Ruíz in Masaya, Nicaragua, on July 14-15, 2018.

 

Most of the prominent opposition figures have returned to Nicaragua

Perhaps the biggest paradox is that, as the figures in this article indicate, Nicaraguans have been free to travel in and out their country and many have done so, encouraged by the amnesty granted in 2019. One of the internationally accepted tests of a genuine refugee is that they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. As the Costa Rican government makes clear from its actions, most Nicaraguans in the country do not meet this test. Those returning to Nicaragua have included most of the prominent political critics of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, who have not only moved back but have since been busy travelling to the United States and elsewhere, lobbying against their own government, apparently without facing any problems on their return. It is of course very much part of their message that Nicaragua is still in a “crisis” which can only be resolved if they, rather than elected President Daniel Ortega, were to be in power.

 

Both UNHCR and the OAS misrepresent the situation

The UNHCR is not the only international body to be complicit in sustaining the argument that Nicaragua’s crisis is unresolved. The same applies, for example, to the Organisation of American States (OAS). Costa Rica’s leaders have been consistent critics of the Sandinista governments, and they have both a political and economic interest in maintaining the fiction that it is they who are suffering from Nicaragua’s continuing “crisis”. It has taken a pandemic to flush out the truth, that Costa Rica is as dependent on Nicaragua economically as Nicaragua is on Costa Rica. And as to the true scale and nature of the refugee problem in Costa Rica, the UNHCR has a duty to explain the actual context, report the facts, and avoid alarmist forecasts that have little basis in reality.

 

John Perry is a writer based in Nicaragua and writes on Central America for The Nation, London Review of Books, Open Democracy and The Grayzone.


Endnotes

[1] “Gobierno pide a residentes nicaragüenses no abandonar el país en los próximos días,” https://semanariouniversidad.com/pais/gobierno-pide-a-residentes-nicaraguenses-no-abandonar-el-pais-en-los-proximos-dias/

[2] “Costa Rica y OEA firman proyecto por $650 mil para atender a migrantes nicaragüenses en suelo tico,” http://cb24.tv/2019/08/12/costa-rica-y-oea-firman-proyecto-por-650-mil-para-atender-a-migrantes-nicaraguenses-en-suelo-tico/

[3] “Two years of political and social crisis in Nicaragua force more than 100,000 to flee,” https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/briefing/2020/3/5e6759934/years-political-social-crisis-nicaragua-forces-100000-flee.html

[4] https://twitter.com/Shabia_M/status/1237335001823350786

[5] “Over 100,000 have fled Nicaragua since brutal 2018 crackdown, says UN,” https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/11/over-100000-have-fled-nicaragua-since-brutal-2018-crackdown-says-un

[6] “Nicaraguan Dissent Threatens To Cause The Next Big Refugee Crisis,” https://theowp.org/nicaraguan-dissent-threatens-to-cause-the-next-big-refugee-crisis/

[7] All statistics quoted in the article, unless otherwise referenced, are taken from the monthly and annual reports on the statistics page of the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería, Costa Rica (http://www.migracion.go.cr/Paginas/Centro%20de%20Documentaci%C3%B3n/Estad%C3%ADsticas.aspx#collapseFour) (hereafter cited as Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería).

[8] Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería.

[9] Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería.

[10] “Migración recibe a Kelly Clements, Alta Comisionada Adjunta para los Refugiados de las Naciones Unidas,” http://www.mgp.go.cr/prensa/noticias/336-migracion-recibe-a-kelly-clements-alta-comisionada-adjunta-para-los-refugiados-de-las-naciones-unidas

[11] “Two years of political and social crisis in Nicaragua force more than 100,000 to flee,” https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/briefing/2020/3/5e6759934/years-political-social-crisis-nicaragua-forces-100000-flee.html

[12] Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería.

[13] Statistics available at http://popstats.unhcr.org/en/overview#_ga=2.73827218.1882832936.1584822524-850912820.1584397536

[14] “Presidente de Costa Rica defiende atención a migración nicaragüense por crisis,” https://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/nacionales/472337-costa-rica-atencion-migracion-nicaraguense-crisis/

[15] Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería.

[16] “Two years of political and social crisis in Nicaragua force more than 100,000 to flee,” https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/briefing/2020/3/5e6759934/years-political-social-crisis-nicaragua-forces-100000-flee.html

[17] Available at https://afgj.org/dismissing-the-truth-why-amnesty-international-is-wrong-about-nicaragua

Migrants en route to the U.S. trafficked in Mexico

Freedom United is an organisation dedicated to ending human trafficking and modern slavery. In February this year we received the following report from Freedom United outlining the difficulties faced by (mostly) Central America migrants trying to make their way to the United States. We are grateful to Freedom United for permission to reproduce their short report here.

https://www.freedomunited.org/

Key words: migration; Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF); asylum processing; kidnapping; sexual violence; Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP); human rights.

13 February, 2020

Medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has reported that migrants from Central America are being “treated as if they aren’t really people” as a staggeringly high number are being kidnapped, raped and trafficked in Mexico.

This comes during a U.S. government crackdown to limit the number of migrants entering the country.

President Donald Trump has threatened to put tariffs on its imports into Mexico, pressuring its neighbour to increase its efforts to stop migrants reaching the U.S. border.

Most migrants from Central America fleeing their home countries as a result of violence or poverty hope to reach safety in the United States where they may have support networks.

Instead, their journey may come to an end in Mexico’s Nuevo Laredo city. According to MSF, nearly 80% of migrants treated in Nuevo Laredo in the first nine months of 2019 were victims of kidnapping or other forms of violence.

Mexico coordinator for MSF, Sergio Martín, said that “they’ve suffered violence … and what they find on their journey is more violence.”

The Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:

“In September, 18 of 41 patients in Nuevo Laredo who had been sent back to Mexico to wait for U.S. asylum processing told MSF they had recently been kidnapped.

“We think that as a direct result of many of these policies there are people who are suffering more violence,” said Martín.

“It’s easier for them to fall into human trafficking networks or into extortion networks, and no one look for them.”

MSF found 78% of almost 3,700 patients in Mexico who sought mental health care in 2018 and 2019 showed signs of exposure to violence, including assault, sexual violence and torture.

Some patients said they had been kidnapped in Mexico for long periods for forced labour, sexual exploitation or recruitment to work for criminal groups.

Almost one in four female migrants told MSF they had experienced sexual violence on their journeys.”

Mexico’s National Guard has been deployed to prevent migrants crossing the border into the U.S. whilst also increasing numbers of detentions and deportations.

To date, the U.S. has sent 57,000 non-Mexican migrants to Mexico as they await their U.S. asylum hearings whilst also restricting asylum criteria and reducing the number of claims being received at each U.S. port of entry.

The Migrant Protection Protocol, otherwise known as MPP, is the U.S. programme that aims to keep asylum seekers in Mexico with the support of the Mexican government.

A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that the “MPP is one of the most important and effective tools we have implemented to confront the crisis on the border and we will continue to strengthen and expand.”

While Mexico’s immigration authority and interior ministry did not comment immediately, President Andres Manuel López Obrador expressed his desire for enforcing immigration laws as long as migrants’ human rights are respected.

Trump Ends TPS for Honduras

The following news about the ending of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for many thousands of Central Americans living in the United States is adapted from a notification from the CISPES national office. (CISPES is the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – http://cispes.org/ )

Key words: temporary protected status (TPS); migration

Friday 4th May (2018) the Trump Administration announced its devastating but unsurprising decision to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 57,000 Hondurans following an 18 month grace period.

Demonstration against ending of TPS for Honduras

In the past year, the Department of Homeland Security has ended TPS for nearly every country to which it had previously been granted, bringing the total number of people who will lose their status to close to 400,000, including over 260,000 Salvadorans. Most Central Americans with TPS have lived here for over 20 years and are parents to U.S. citizens.

It should be evident that the ending of TPS could lead to a drastic increase in the number of deportees arriving back in Central American countries, especially El Salvador. The ramifications of such an influx of migrants would be felt in all walks of life including housing, employment and security.

 CISPES National Office
1525 Newton St. NW
Washington DC, 20010
(202) 521-2510

IDB Considers Multimillion Dollar Loan to Impose Migratory Controls across Mexico-Guatemala Border

A blog post by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

 Reproduced by kind permission of CIEL

Originally posted August 7, 2017

 Recently, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) was poised to provide US $200 million to Guatemala to strengthen “competitiveness” and “security” by implementing fiscal and migratory controls at border crossings with Mexico.

Family crossing Río Suchiate at Tecun Uman on the Guatemala, Mexico border. The IDB planned to give millions to the Guatemalan military to bulk up security at this and other border crossings. Credit: Kelsey Alford-Jones

This project did not immediately stand out among the dozens of projects collected each week by the Early Warning System (EWS) in the region. Indeed, while the EWS seeks to alert communities of all projects under consideration for Bank finance, we focus on projects that have a high risk of causing adverse impacts or rights violations in nearby communities – typically large-scale infrastructure projects, mining, hydroelectric dams, among others.

Yet harmful impacts are not only caused by the physical footprint of a project or by displacement or contamination associated with the operation of a project. Sometimes the way a project is structured, or the choice of its implementing partner, raises equal concern.

In this case, the scale and impact of the project were hard to determine, but I immediately noted the government agency that would receive the $200 million loan and be responsible for overseeing the proposed fiscal and migratory controls: it was the Guatemalan Defence Ministry.

Supporting an Expanded Role for the Military?

Having worked on Guatemalan human rights issues for eight years, this raised serious red flags. The IDB project involved activities that fall outside the mandate of the Defence Ministry, an issue that would raise concern in any country. Yet in Guatemala, these concerns are exacerbated by the recent legacy of intense state-sponsored violence and the nation’s ongoing struggle to define a clear – and appropriately limited – role for the military. For example, fiscal controls fall explicitly within the mandate of a different agency, and empowering the military by giving it control of the programme budget would expand its duties unnecessarily.

Moreover, the military has been linked to numerous corruption scandals and has been shown to have connections to transnational organised criminal groups even reaching its highest levels. For example, there are documented cases of weapons thefts from Guatemalan military bases, indicating a direct flow of arms from the military to criminal organisations. This is echoed by a report by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) on arms trafficking, which found evidence of “intentional diversion of military or police arsenals to the black market.”

“Better Control of Migrants On their Way to the US”

A mural in Tecun Uman, San Marcos – a busy border crossing with Mexico that would receive funding through the IDB project – depicts the story of many Central American migrants forced to uproot themselves from their communities and journey north to flee violence and to support their families. (Credit: Kelsey-Alford Jones)

The fact that the Defence Ministry is the executing agency isn’t the only red flag. IDB objectives listed in project documents also raised concerns. For example, the project explicitly aimed to impede migration of those seeking to travel to the United States.  This objective has been part of a regional effort – pushed by the US and funded by the IDB and others – to address the unprecedented number of migrants and refugees reaching the US border in recent years, including unaccompanied minors, from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  In a recent open letter to the IDB, dozens of organisations called on the bank to recognise the complex root causes of migration, which include high rates of generalised violence, as well as targeted violence against women, LGBT people, children, and other vulnerable communities. It is tragic that the response to this regional humanitarian crisis is to block passage of migrants and refugees by bulking up the military’s presence at the border. Importantly, this initiative could also violate international law.

With the project flagged in the EWS, I reached out to partners in Guatemala to share its details and my analysis. I also ensured the information reached border communities who would be impacted by implementation at border crossings. Then, to ensure these concerns were not passing under the radar, I reached out directly to the US government, both in meetings and in a memo that was circulated to US Treasury officials, the US office of the Executive Director of the IDB, and the IDB project team.

Not long after, we were informed that the implementing agency was being reconsidered, and it would no longer be the Defence Ministry. The IDB website also suggests the Bank has halved funding from $200 million to $100 million. Nevertheless, we have yet to see this change reflected on the IDB’s website or receive formal confirmation.

This is a partial win. Guatemalans are more aware of the funding their government is requesting, and the new implementing agency will, hopefully, be the proper one to put new fiscal controls into effect. Yet the overall funding proposal continues to raise concerns, both in the lack of clarity on the specific impacts of the project and in the suggestion that ‘border security’ includes limiting the ability of refugees and asylum seekers to flee their own country.

The EWS team will continue to track the project as it evolves, and having done analysis and outreach while the project is still in the pipeline, we are now well placed to support communities who may be impacted in the future.

By Kelsey Alford-Jones, Senior Campaigner for the People, Land and Resources Program at the Centre for International Environmental Law. This project was initially monitored and analysed as part of the Early Warning System, a joint initiative by the Centre for International Environmental Law and the International Accountability Project.

 


Since 1989, the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has used the power of law to protect the environment, promote human rights, and ensure a just and sustainable society.

CIEL (Headquarters)
1101 15th St NW, 11th Floor
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Fleeing Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle

The following February 2017 article from Adriana Beltrán entitled ‘Children and Families Fleeing Violence in Central America’ was produced by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The article formed part of WOLA’s ‘Beyond the Wall: Migration, Rights and Border Security’ initiative which addresses the impact of the Trump administration’s policies with fact-based analysis and alternatives.

I am grateful to Adriana for permission to reproduce the article for this website. I encourage readers to visit the WOLA website at: https://www.wola.org

The Department of Homeland Security has started to put the wheels in motion on President Trump’s executive orders on immigration—and they will put the lives of thousands of Central American children and families in danger.

On February 21 [2017], the White House announced new guidelines for immigration policies. The memos lay out instructions for how US law enforcement agencies should implement the forceful executive orders that President Trump signed on January 25 on immigration enforcement within the United States and at the border.

The guidelines specifically call for parents of unaccompanied minors to be prosecuted for human smuggling or trafficking. This will deal a blow to thousands of families across the country, threatening parents who were attempting to unify their families and save their children’s lives. Between 2015 and 2016, over 180,000 children and families fleeing violence in Central America were apprehended at the US-Mexico border.

Less tangibly, these new guidelines also signal to immigration and border agents to be even more hesitant in determining who has established enough “credible fear” to gain asylum. There were already a number of hurdles for migrants to get asylum status, and with these latest memos, it will likely be much more difficult.

Being denied refugee status or being deported can be a death sentence, as one of the key factors driving large numbers of Central Americans to leave their communities is violence. The countries of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—continue to be plagued by endemic levels of crime and violence that have made many communities extremely dangerous, especially for children and young adults.

In 2015, El Salvador’s murder rate increased dramatically, reaching a level of violence not seen since the end of the country’s civil war. The 70 percent increase in the homicide rate over 2014 followed the unraveling of a truce between rival gangs and an aggressive crackdown by security forces that has spurred concerns about extrajudicial executions and other human rights abuses. The National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) registered 5,728 murders in the country in 2016, making it the second consecutive year with over 5,000 recorded murders in El Salvador’s recent history.

In neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, homicide levels have decreased overall, but both remain among the world’s most violent countries not at war. This is not to say that every neighborhood throughout the region is comparable to a war zone. Yet there are many communities, both urban and rural, where the fear and threat of violence is extremely grave.

These homicide statistics are just one measure of the pervasive violence impacting many marginalized communities in the three countries. Extortion is widespread, with small businesses, the public transportation sector, and poor neighborhoods being the most heavily hit. It has been estimated that Salvadorans pay more than US$390 million a year in extortion fees, while Hondurans pay around $200 million and Guatemalans an estimated $61 million. Failure to pay can result in harassment, violence, or death.

Family and domestic violence is also a factor in the decision to migrate for many women and children. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are some of the most dangerous countries to be a woman, with female homicide rates among the highest in the world. Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público) reported receiving over 50,000 cases of violence against women in 2013, of which only 983—about 2 percent—culminated with a prison sentence for the aggressor. In more than 76 percent of cases received by the police in the same year, the perpetrator was reported to be either living with (29.5 percent), the husband of (29 percent), or the ex-partner of (18 percent) the female victim. The situation of domestic violence is similar throughout the region. In Honduras, 471 women were killed in 2015—one every 16 hours. And in El Salvador, there have been nearly 1,100 cases of domestic violence and over 2,600 cases of sexual violence in 2016. With the constant threat of violence and abuse in the Northern Triangle, many women and children choose to venture north in search of safety.

 

Understanding the Roots of Violence and Insecurity

Violence and insecurity in the Northern Triangle comes from many sources. In recent years, Central America has become one of the main transshipment routes for illicit drugs making their way to the United States. Local ‘transportistas,’—drug-smuggling operations doing the bidding of transnational drug trafficking cartels—contribute to violence in rural areas, particularly in border areas, and are in large part responsible for the rampant levels of corruption and the erosion of the justice and security systems.

Violence and insecurity are also largely due to the proliferation of local street gangs or maras that impact every aspect of life in the neighbourhoods and communities they control. While many well-to-do neighbourhoods remain safe, in many poorer communities, gangs enforce curfews, control entry into their neighbourhoods, and impose their own rules. Children and young men are often threatened or pressured to join the gangs, while young women often experience sexual assault or abuse at the hands of gang members, forcing many to drop out of school or relocate.

Children and families are not just seeking refuge across borders, as evidenced by the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an estimated 714,000 people from the Northern Triangle were internally displaced as a result of conflict and violence, as of the end of 2015. In El Salvador, the organisation reports that 289,000 people—nearly five percent of the population—are internally displaced due to violence.\

 

A Lack of Economic Opportunity

Compounding the problem of violence in these countries is the lack of economic security. It is estimated that 60 percent of those living in rural areas in the Northern Triangle live in poverty. For the past few years, the region has been experiencing the most severe drought in decades, which has threatened the livelihoods of over 2.8 million people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This drought has been especially devastating in rural communities, and for subsistence farmers and day labourers. The lack of adequate rainfall in the so-called ‘dry corridor’ has resulted in significant crop failures and loss of income. It has exacerbated economic and food insecurity in already vulnerable populations.

In addition, more than one million people in the Northern Triangle countries are neither in school nor employed. Commonly referred to as ninis, there are 350,000 in Guatemala and 240,000 in El Salvador. Honduras has the highest rate of ninis in Latin America, with 27.5 percent of young people out of school and without employment. The inability to find a job, advance through education or support themselves through self-employment or farming, compels many young Central Americans to leave their homes and communities.

 

Weak Democratic Institutions

These problems fester because the governments of the Northern Triangle countries have been unable to effectively address the problems of rampant crime and violence, or to pursue economic strategies that would generate stable jobs and opportunities. A major part of this problem has been weak, corrupt and underfunded state institutions. Many victims of violence often find no protection from the authorities. The majority of police forces are underfunded, plagued by poor leadership, and sometimes complicit in criminal activity. Efforts to purge and reform the civilian police forces have made limited progress, enabling the infiltration and co-optation by criminal groups.

Among the Northern Triangle countries as a whole, the statistics on prosecutions are appalling. Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica reported in 2014 that throughout the Northern Triangle, impunity rates for homicides reached approximately 95 percent on average (95 percent in El Salvador, 93 percent in Guatemala, and 97 percent in Honduras). This means that 19 out of every 20 murders remain unsolved, and that the chances of being caught, prosecuted, and convicted for committing a murder are practically nil. The 2015 Global Impunity Index ranked El Salvador as the country with the eighth highest rate of impunity in the world, while Honduras was ranked seventh.

 

Addressing the Problem

There is no magic solution to the endemic violence, poor governance, and poverty in the Northern Triangle. These are difficult problems that will require a comprehensive, long-term strategy. Unless these factors are addressed, families and children will continue to flee their communities. The United States and other donors need to work with Central American governments, where they are willing, to address the root causes that are driving migration. This means:

  • Expanding evidenced-based, community-level programmes to reduce youth crime and violence, reintegrate youth seeking to leave the influence of street gangs and criminal groups, and protect children who have suffered violence. Evidence suggests that investing in prevention initiatives that bring together local community groups, churches, police, social services, and government agencies can make a difference in reducing youth violence and victimization.
  • Support robust programmes to enhance transparency and accountability and address the deep-seated corruption that hinders citizens’ access to basic services, weakens state institutions and erodes the foundations of democracy. International and independent anti-impunity and anti-corruption commissions, such as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras, MACCIH), can play a crucial role in tackling corruption and organised crime and building domestic investigative capacities.[1]
  • Focus security-related funding on strengthening civilian law enforcement and justice institutions and making these institutions more accountable and transparent. Programming should be directed toward bolstering policing capacity overall (such as internal and external control mechanisms, police investigation techniques, recruitment and training, etc.), rather than targeting resources to specialized vetted units and other programmes that may achieve short term objectives but have little impact on improving broader law enforcement institutions. Attention should also be given to strengthening the independence and capabilities of prosecutors and judges. Indicators of success should include measures of progress on these institutional issues.
  • Targeting development assistance to support evidenced-based job training, job creation and education programmes that focus on at-risk youth in targeted communities. Support should also be provided over a sustained period to small-scale agriculture, including marketing and technical assistance, to improve rural communities’ ability to provide livelihoods for their citizens.
  • Ensuring that local communities and civil society organisations are systematically consulted and involved in the design and evaluation of programmes. The meaningful participation of local groups can help make sure that donor efforts are having a sustainable impact in the communities at risk of violence and out-migration.

 

The Need for Commitment on the Ground

At the same time, addressing the root causes of migration requires the Central American governments to do their part. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras must demonstrate a sound commitment to supporting reforms to strengthen public institutions, tackle corruption, and protect human rights. They must also increasingly assume the financial burden that is needed to transform their countries through fiscal reforms, improving tax collection, and insisting that their elites pay their fair share.

The problems are daunting and will not be resolved overnight. But commitment and political will matter tremendously. In Guatemala, for example, the appointment of a courageous and effective advocate as attorney general led not only to prosecutions in high profile human rights and organised crime related cases, but to internal reforms that improved management, made prosecutors’ caseloads more manageable, and led to a doubling in homicide conviction rates in the Department of Guatemala. The continuation of reform efforts by the successor has resulted in unprecedented results in the fight against corruption and impunity in the country.

The US$750 million in assistance appropriated by the US Congress for Central America for fiscal year 2016 was a positive step forward. The aid package more than doubles the previous level of assistance to the region, while expanding the US agenda from a narrow, security-oriented approach to one that seeks to strengthen institutions and invest in economic development.

Notably, the package also includes a series of strong conditions on combating corruption, increasing transparency and accountability, strengthening public institutions, and protecting human rights. Ensuring that assistance is strategically targeted, wisely invested and properly implemented will determine whether the new strategy is effective in addressing the dire conditions in the countries of the Northern Triangle. Better information on the specific objectives, aid levels, and programmes in each country, as well as progress indicators being used and how outcomes are being defined, will allow for greater ability to assess whether or not US assistance is achieving the desired results. In addition, ensuring that the conditions placed on the funds are being met will help gauge the commitment of the Central American governments.[2]


[1]   [Commentary added by Martin Mowforth] Readers should note that the MACCIH’s formation with the guidance of the Organisation of American States (OAS) was under the control of the Honduran government (of President Juan Orlando Hernández) rather than being independent of the government in the way that the CICIG in Guatemala was, and remains. This is a significant difference. In Guatemala, the CICIG, formed under the auspices of the United Nations, was designed to investigate and prosecute corruption within government agencies and institutions. In Honduras, the government of Hernández has itself passed through numerous corruption scandals with few consequences. As Bertha Oliva de Nativi (Director of COFADEH) says of the MACCIH: “What we do have is a MACCIH which … we have seen is largely silenced.” For further evidence of the inadequacy of the MACCIH, the reader is referred to an article entitled ‘Honduran Congressional Corruption’ that will be entered into this website next month (March 2018).

[2]   [Commentary added by Martin Mowforth] Despite WOLA’s rather upbeat note about aid levels from the US government, it must be remembered that the US government has a history of directing its aid through anti-democratic (and occasionally clandestine) agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy which tends to funnel funds to economically neoliberal and politically right-wing causes.