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).