In recent weeks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has conducted a series of raids targeting Central American families who arrived at the United States’ southern border in the past two years. The raids have generated widespread opposition: more than 140 members of Congress wrote to the administration to criticize the operations, and service providers, advocates, and religious groups have expressed concerns about human rights and lack of due process. The administration’s apparent belief that deporting families and children will send a message deterring other would-be migrants is short-sighted and inhumane.
Beyond their immediate effect on the immigrant community, the debate that the raids have generated raises the question: what is driving people to leave their homes and communities in Central America?
The facts make clear that refugees, people in need of protection, and migrants—including unaccompanied minors—will continue to leave the Northern Triangle countries in record numbers until their governments can implement policies that actually reduce violence, insecurity, and poverty, tackle corruption, and strengthen weak institutions. U.S. and international institutions must respond appropriately and humanely to refugees and those in need of protection, and must aid Central America in addressing the root causes of violence and corruption.
Below are five facts about migration from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since 2014:
1. High levels of violence continue to plague Central America’s Northern Triangle; in the case of El Salvador, violence is not only high, but increasing. Central America’s Northern Triangle region is among the most violent in the world.
According to police statistics, El Salvador’s 2015 national murder rate reached approximately 103 homicides per 100,000 people, a level of violence not seen since the end of the country’s civil war. Last year’s 6,650 homicides are an approximately 70 percent increase over 2014, following the unraveling of a truce between rival gangs and an aggressive crackdown by security forces. While El Salvador received the unwanted designation of the most violent country in the hemisphere, violence levels remain high in neighboring Honduras and Guatemala.
Honduras’ homicide rate was 57 murders for every 100,000 people in 2015. Though this was a drop from 69 homicides per 100,000 people in 2014, the rate remains among the world’s worst.
In Guatemala, the homicide rate slightly decreased in 2015 from 32 to 29.5 violent deaths per 100,000 people. With a total of 4,778 homicides in 2015, Guatemala saw an estimated 13 murders per day, according to the country’s national police.* To put these numbers into perspective, the murder rate in the United States is around 5 per 100,000 inhabitants. This is one seventh of the rate in Guatemala, and one twentieth of the rate in El Salvador.
Homicide statistics are just one measure of the pervasive violence in many marginalized communities in all three countries. Extortion is also widespread. Data compiled by the Honduran daily La Prensa revealed that Salvadorans pay an estimated US$400 million a year in extortion fees, while Hondurans pay around $200 million and Guatemalans an estimated $61 million. Small businesses, the public transport sector, and poor neighborhoods are the most heavily hit. A 2013 report revealed that 70 percent of small businesses in El Salvador are victims of extortion. According to a Guatemalan human rights organization, between January and July of 2014, at least 700 people had been killed for failing to pay extortion fees.
2. People are fleeing community-level violence, which is often personal and direct. They face real and specific threats from street gangs, extortionists, drug traffickers, and from domestic abuse, and so may be potential targets if returned. In many poor and marginalized communities in all three countries, women and children are victims of extortion, abuse, rape, murder, and gang-related violence. In many of these communities, citizens face explicit threats on their lives for reasons that may include bearing witness to a crime, attempting to leave a gang, or failing to pay an extortion fee or war tax. A 2015 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that women in particular face a “startling” degree of violence in the Northern Triangle and Mexico, including rape, assault, extortion, and threats by armed criminal groups. Sixty-four percent of women interviewed for the study cited targeted threats or attacks as one of their primary motivations for leaving their communities.
Although there are no official records of how many deported migrants have been killed upon return to their home countries, one study has estimated that over 80 returnees have been murdered in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since January 2014. A recent article published in The Guardian profiled three cases of returned migrants who were murdered shortly after being deported from the United States, one only days after his arrival. A short op-doc produced by the New York Times chronicling the journey of several unaccompanied children from Honduras described the endemic violence as a key factor in many minors’ decision to make the risky journey north.
3. These individuals have nowhere to turn for protection if they are sent back. Countries of the Northern Triangle are not providing security for their citizens. Victims of violence, extortion, sexual abuse, and death threats rarely find protection from the authorities. In fact, many victims fear the police as much as the criminals. In the Northern Triangle countries, rule of law and law enforcement institutions are weak and corrupted. The majority of police forces are underfunded, plagued by poor leadership, and sometimes complicit in criminal activity.
In El Salvador, growing concerns of reports of police and security force involvement in extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses are troubling. Among the Northern Triangle countries as a whole, the statistics on criminal investigation and prosecution are appalling: only five percent of homicide cases lead to a conviction in the region. Given this context, it is not surprising that women, children, and youth consider fleeing their communities in search of safety and protection.
4. The dangers people are fleeing are documented in skyrocketing requests for asylum or other forms of protection from citizens of the Northern Triangle, not just in the United States but in other countries of the region. It is not illegal to cross international borders to seek asylum. While the United States continues to be a primary destination, the countries neighboring the Northern Triangle, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and Nicaragua, have seen requests for asylum from citizens of these countries increase by almost 1,200 percent from 2008 to 2014. Between 2008 and August 2015, Costa Rica alone saw a sixteen-fold increase in asylum requests from the Northern Triangle countries. Request for asylum in Mexico, primarily from Northern Triangle countries, have more than doubled since 2013. In a further illustration that fear and insecurity are driving migration and requests for asylum and protection, a UNHCR analysis of credible fear screenings carried out by U.S. asylum officers found that in 2015, 82 percent of the women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico who were screened on arrival at the U.S. border “to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.”
Of course, the decision to migrate is a complicated one, and a variety of factors– especially economic insecurity and family situation–play into the decision. But there can be little doubt that violence and insecurity are major drivers in the decision of a growing number of Northern Triangle citizens to leave their country in search of protection.
5. While there has been an increase in Central American migrants, especially women, children, and families, overall migration at the United States’ southern border is low, and there is no migration crisis at our border. While headlines about Central Americans’ flight from violence may leave the other impression, the fact is overall migration to the United States through the southern border has plummeted in recent years. There is simply no crisis of illegal border-crossing to justify the recent deportation policy. In fiscal year 2015, Border Patrol apprehended 331,313 people at the U.S.-Mexico border. That is the second fewest of any year since 1972, and the number of Mexican citizens apprehended (186,017) is the lowest since 1970. (In 2000 Border Patrol, with less than half as many agents as 2015, apprehended over 1.6 million Mexicans.)
At the same time, however, Border Patrol apprehensions of certain vulnerable populations, namely family units and unaccompanied children, have increased. Recently released statistics reveal that Border Patrol apprehended 8,412 family-unit members and 5,783 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle in December 2015, the highest numbers for any December. The persistently increasing levels of youth and family migration—during a month in which migration is typically low—strongly suggest that these groups are fleeing dangerous conditions within their countries, and will continue to do so while these root causes remain unaddressed.
*UPDATE: this piece has been edited to include Guatemala’s homicide data from the National Civil Police (PNC).