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Expert Opinion

A Call to Action: tackling displacement in Central America

Photo: IOM/Keith Dannemiller

The number of people fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle, made up of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,has surged to levels unseen since the end of the armed conflicts that devastated the region in the 1980s. The region, which is home to 30 million people, suffered 17,500 violent deaths last year as a result of criminal violence associated with drug trafficking and gang activity – a homicide rate exceeded only in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. 

The number of asylum seekers reached 110,000 in 2015, a fivefold increase since 2012. The majority of those who crossed borders have sought safety in the US, Mexico and the neighbouring countries of Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. As in many migration crises, however, most of the people forced to flee their homes have done so within the borders of their own countries. IDMC estimates that as of last year, at least a million people had been internally displaced in parts of Mexico and the Northern Triangle. 

On 6 and 7 July 2016 we attended a high-level regional roundtable entitled  A Call to Action: Protection Needs in the Northern Triangle of Central America in San José, Costa Rica. The event, which was hosted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Organisation of American States (OAS), the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the Costa Rican government, was a promising first effort to develop a coordinated regional response to the crisis. 

More than 200 senior representatives from the region’s national governments, major international organisations and civil society held frank and open discussions on the need to address the situation in a more strategic, collaborative and systematic way. 

The overall objective was to develop a joint declaration of action for presentation to the UN General Assembly on 19 September and the leaders’ summit that will take place the day after, in which the issue of migration and refuge will be discussed. The draft outcome document was encouraging, but came up a bit short.

Internal displacement was not addressed specifically, but was covered more generally in the draft’s content. The two most important issues included were:

1) The need to create a common understanding of forced internal displacement in the region

2) The need to develop policies to ensure IDPs’ and returnees’ protection before they become refugees

Aside from being a statement of good intentions, the draft did not set out any concrete action for Northern Triangle states to take on internally displaced people (IDPs), and this was a missed opportunity. It did, however, call for the development of national action plans before the end of 2016, to be followed a year later by periodic reviews with the participation of UNHCR and OAS. Whether this becomes a reality remains to be seen.

It is also disappointing that, with the notable exception of Honduras, none of the region’s countries formally acknowledge the existence of internal displacement on their territory. Instead they refer to it as a migration crisis caused by a number of unspecified factors. Guatemala’s vocal denial of the problem during its opening statement was of particular concern.

Internal displacement associated with crime and drug violence in Mexico also felt like an elephant in the room. The country was not on the roundtable’s agenda as a source of displacement, and its participation was limited to its role as a transit and reception site for forced migrants from the Northern Triangle.

This despite the fact that violence perpetrated by Mexico’s powerful drug cartels has created a sizeable population of IDPs. Indeed, in some regions the scale of the problem is comparable with the Northern Triangle.

Despite these significant shortcomings, it was encouraging to see that the roundtable participants agreed on the need to harmonise their research and diagnostic tools to create a common understanding of the regional situation, and to establish national data collection systems on internal displacement and refuges forcefully returned.

The discussions very much highlighted an urgent need for concrete, accurate data and robust analysis to better inform donors and policy-makers. To this end, we are prioritising research to map the scope and scale of displacement associated with crime and drug violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle in coordination with our partners in the region.

The aim is to develop a framework to better understand the phenomenon. It will also help to create a clearer picture of the crisis in the region by identifying the number, profile, location and needs of the most vulnerable IDPs, consolidating existing data, guiding new efforts to collect more and identifying persisting gaps.