Each year, thousands of people leave their homes in Latin America, the Caribbean and other regions in an effort to secure futures that have become practically unattainable in their countries of origin. Economic dispossession, lack of access to education and employment, violence, and other structural and personal factors have motivated people from all over the world, but mostly from Central American countries, to seek a new life in the United States or other countries within the region.
Many will have successfully gone through visa application processes to start a new phase of their lives. Some aren’t so lucky, and will be setting off on journeys they know will be long and dangerous, with a risk of failure.
The Mexican National Institute of Migration recorded 138,612 cases of detention of migrants in an irregular situation in 2018, compared with 93,846 in the same period in 2017. 88 per cent of those detained in 2018 were citizens of Honduras (42.93%), Guatemala (34.4%) and El Salvador (10.3%).
People who migrate irregularly from Central America to North America must face dangerous river and desert crossings, remote terrain and unsafe forms of transport to reach their destinations, such as traveling on top of freight trains over long journeys or inside overcrowded trucks. They may also be exposed to different forms of violence including being robbed, extorted, assaulted trafficked and even killed.
The true number of people who have died while transiting through the region is not known, but records compiled by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project (MMP) indicate that at least 3,015 people lost their lives between 2014 and 2018 in the Central and Northern American region.
So why do people who migrate decide to risk everything, including their own lives?
A study published July 2019 by the Central American Integration System (SICA), IOM and UNHCR details some of the main causes of displacement and migration in Central American countries. According to the study, in the seventies and eighties, Central Americans migrated mostly because of the socioeconomic exclusion and political conflict that occurred in some countries of the region. For the following decades, the main driving factors included the lack of job opportunities, as well as the risk caused by violence and crime.
Similarly, in 2019, the international NGO Creative commissioned a similar research study on the municipalities that have the highest rates of outward migration from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They identified the 60 municipalities that combined account for more than half of all the region’s emigration, and the triggers that led people to make the choice to migrate. These were divided in three main categories: economics, victimization and transnational ties.
The principal factors that differentiate those who do intend to migrate from those who do not in the municipalities surveyed fall under the category of economics. When asked what their primary reason for migrating would be, more than 60 percent of respondents cited economic-related concerns. Migration from the Northern Triangle happens against the backdrop of a vulnerable regional economy, where many of those who are working do so in an informal capacity with few protections or opportunities for advancement.
Transnational ties – defined here as existence of family in the U.S., receipt of remittances, and prior migration to the U.S. – is an important pull factor in the migration equation, although far less impactful than economics and victimization.
Victimization in Central America is an important push factor, since regionally, having been a victim of a crime or having a family member or someone close who has been makes an individual 1.5 times more likely to consider migrating. However, this reason for migration varied greatly depending on the country and municipality in Central America. For example, in El Salvador, 38% of respondents cited it as a primary factor, as opposed to the 14% in Guatemala and 18% in Honduras.
SICA’s study details how violence in the region is aggravated by organized crime and drug trafficking, creating a climate of insecurity that creates an increase in mixed intra and extra-regional migratory flows. For example, 87% of internally displaced Salvadorians had to move due to victimization. Climate change, natural disasters and access to education were also cited as significant factors in deciding to migrate.
IOM’s World Migration Report points out that, aside from the risks, the potential rewards for migration need to be taken into account when discussing the migration decision-making processes. For some communities, the rewards can be long term, allowing the next generation and their children access to better education, health services and living standards, while at the same time supporting family members and communities in origin countries.
For other groups, including those that may have been marginalized economically, socially or politically in their home countries, international migration has become a survival strategy where family and community members engage in migration to access resources and safety.
Additional findings on the development of long-term labour migration corridors point to an increasing reliance on remittances as key components of household incomes, which in turn locks people into specific migration patterns.
Nearly a quarter of those who say they have thought of migrating receive remittances across the Northern Triangle’s high-migration municipalities, in comparison to 15 percent of those who haven’t thought of migrating but receive remittances.
Migration decision-making processes before, during and after migration continuing to be shaped by broader economic, social and cultural conditions. Furthermore, there is a wide variation in the ability of migrants to make choices, depending on the constraints and options they face. These depend on the specific factors that push people to emigrate from one area as opposed to another.
For these reasons, it is important that solutions for irregular migration be tailored for each location and are supported from migrants’ perspectives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but responses should be sustainable, and protect migrants both before and during their journeys.