The state of migration in the North of Central America

March 16, 2022
By Linda Casey
March 16, 2022

The background

Plan International is working in partnership with ChildFund International, EDUCO and local NGO partners to implement the Protected Passage project in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Protected Passage, also known as PP, supports and protects children, adolescent girls and their families as they migrate, seek asylum or return to their country of origin. PP and its partners provide emergency services to the most vulnerable individuals among these groups including: shelter, food and hygiene kits; cash and voucher assistance; and psychosocial support, while connecting migrants to legal, health and other key services. The project also strengthens protection systems and builds community awareness of migration and migrant rights.

In 2021, with program structures and local partnerships established in each country, a baseline survey was carried out. Information was gleaned through literature reviews, as well as through in-depth interviews with key informants, surveys and focus group discussions with people who are migration and return in the four program countries.

 

Baseline survey results

The survey results revealed low levels of knowledge among people on the move regarding where to seek services; clear perceptions of risk to themselves and to their family members; and mixed community attitudes toward migrating populations. All of this reinforced the need for service provision and linkages, mitigating risks through strengthened protection systems and raising awareness around why people migrate, as well as migrant rights.

 

Basic services

When asked if they knew where to go for different types of services for migrants, many people in situations of transit and return did not have adequate knowledge. In Guatemala, less than a quarter knew where to access migrant services like food, shelter and health services. Similarly, in Mexico, fewer than 20% of persons migrating through the southern city of Tapachula came with this information. When people did obtain information on where to access services, sources included: the media, social networks, migrant-serving organizations, friends and relatives who had migrated before them and, occasionally, local government. Although a minority of individuals knew where to seek services in advance, about half of those who were interviewed during transit through the communities where PP partner organizations operate reported that they had received one or more basic service along the way (e.g., food and water, accommodation, hygiene items, shoes or clothing and/or psychosocial support, among others).

These results seem to indicate that humanitarian agencies and migration support programs are having a certain degree of success in reaching those in need along the Northern Central America and Mexico migration route. At the same time, much remains to be done, both to reach the majority of those with needs and to provide more comprehensive services that address a wider range of needs.

 

Risks

During the survey, migrants were asked if, before embarking on their migration, they knew the risks they were taking when starting the migration process. In response, 57% of returned migrants declared knowing the risks and 54% of migrants in transit declared knowing the risks before embarking on the trip. Although few individuals were able to list multiple risks when surveyed individually, in focus group discussions, most participants in situations of migration and in host/return communities demonstrated a good sense of the diverse risks involved. With some variations by country, the types of risks most commonly mentioned were:

  • Physical risk (physical violence/assault, death, accidents, rape, bad weather, disease) — 35%.
  • Economic risk (extortion, robbery/theft, ransom payments) — 30%.
  • Psychological risks (related to kidnapping, extortion, rape, and “witnessing heartbreaking events”) — 27%.
  • Social risk (discrimination, persecution, denial of assistance, social abuse and family separation) — 5%.
  • Legal risks (being captured, deported, human rights violations, corruption) — 4%.

Respondents were particularly aware of the vulnerability of children, especially girls, and of adolescent girls and young women, in addition to the inadequacy of protection services along the way. In Honduras, for example, interviewees added that children and adolescents bear particular risks of suffering an injury or of getting sick, separation from parents or the adult they are traveling with, and poor diet — which affects their health and nutritional status.

Despite knowing these risks, those surveyed commonly noted that poverty, unemployment and violence are major challenges at home, outweighing the risks of the migrations journey itself. As a result, these factors continue to drive migration.

 

Host community attitudes
In host communities through which migrating populations transit or to which they return, our survey found mixed attitudes — supportive in some aspects and biased in others. For example, in El Salvador, 95% of people interviewed in one project area expressed multiple positive attitudes toward migrating individuals. They consider these individuals to be an important part of the community who should be treated with dignity. On the other hand, 36% perceived increased security risks in their communities with the arrival of migrants, while 22% expressed a negative impact on the job market. In Tapachula, Mexico, 85% of surveyed residents expressed three or more positive attitudes toward migrating populations, and residents of this city are frequently engaged by civil society organizations in providing support to migrating populations. However, some respondents in Tapachula noted that there is resentment among some members of the local population due to the specialized services that are provided only for migrating populations. In Honduras, where migration touches every part of society, there is strong support for migrating persons: 98% of community members surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that migrants are an important part of the community.

 

Conclusions

The PP baseline study reinforced our understanding of key migration dynamics in the region. For example, the risks of undertaking the journey are known to those who attempt it, but the key drivers of migration are stronger. When faced with little to no opportunity for steady economic livelihoods, combined with social and political instability, and perhaps violence, as well as the pull of family reunification, people will continue to migrate. The survey also reinforced our understanding of unmet needs for services, strengthening of protection systems and tackling issues of stigma and discrimination.

At the same time, having engaged individuals and groups in different situations of migration through the survey, the project has been able to identify specific characteristics of the migration process in each country — around types of perceived risk and community attitudes in particular. These are helping us to fine-tune how we can better engage government partners and communities to improve the situation for people in each unique stage of migration — whether that be someone who is considering migration, or those who are in transit, waiting for asylum or returning.