The refugee crisis you don’t know about

Central America’s Northern Triangle is the most violent in the world outside of a warzone.
Photo: Ray Perezoso/ CC BY-SA 2.0/ Source: Flickr

In the last couple of years, the world’s attention has focused on the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, with far reaching political consequences. Yet, at the other side of the ocean, in the heart of the Americas, another refugee crisis has been slowly unfolding for years.

Violence and conflict

An estimated 500,000 people cross into Mexico every year on their route to reach the United States. The majority flee from Central America’s Northern Triangle- encompassing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras- a region that is known to be the most violent in the world outside of a warzone, with a per capita death rate similar to the one in Syria.

While Trump’s ramblings on the need for a wall and the fine points of his administration’s immigration policies are well known, what happens south of the U.S. border remains largely in the shadow of media coverage.

In May 2017, Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) published a report presenting two years of medical data and testimonies of people travelling along migration routes in Mexico. It described the violence experienced by them as a neglected humanitarian crisis, a definition usually reserved to conflict zones.

As the data shows, the high levels of violence present in the region are indisputable, as well as its consequences which are urgent and immediate. Bertrand Rossier, MSF’s head of mission in Mexico states that ‘murder, kidnappings, threats, recruitment by non-state armed actors, extortion, sexual violence, and forced disappearance—these are the realities of war and conflicts also faced by people in this region of Central America.’

According to the Meso-American Migration Movement, as many as 20,000 migrants disappear or die every year attempting to reach the fabled North.

Responding to humanitarian needs

The labelling of the crisis as a humanitarian one should therefore not be surprising, despite the absence of a classic conflict setting or of natural disasters. MSF is also not the first organisation to do so, and the engagement of key humanitarian actors in the region, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) illustrates well the scale and nature of the problem. Their activities, ranging from emergency health services to legal services for asylum seekers are life-saving.

However, there are many that are sceptic about the humanitarian framing and that question the mandate of humanitarian actors. For instance, some argue that their perceived neutrality may enable national governments to avoid their responsibility to protect its citizens. As a consequence, governments may be less willing to address the deep rooted structural causes of violence through innovative policy solutions.

It is clear that multi sectoral policies and responses are needed to address the crisis in Central America. The capacity of national actors in providing adequate assistance is often inadequate. For example, the fiscal crisis in El Salvador led the government to ask for humanitarian funding from the UN to support the internally displaced.


By focusing merely on security measures, governments also often exacerbate the violence. Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy supported by the U.S. government, Programa Frontera Sur, continues to prioritise the detention of migrants, instead of investing in their safety and well-being. Neutral humanitarian actors are therefore vital in a context in which governments are absent and corruption is rife.

Neglected causes, wrong solutions

At the same time, development programmes are of critical importance in addressing the roots causes of violence in Central America. In this regard, can the Alliance for Prosperity Plan, a five-year joint regional plan created and implemented by the United States, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador which prioritises a cause-based approach, be up to the task?

While at first glance it seems to say all the right things, it has been criticized by hundreds of American and international human rights and environmental organisations for promoting a militarized approach and a ruthless extractivist development that would prioritise the profits of transnational corporations over the rights of indigenous communities.

Plans to increase foreign investment and build large scale infrastructure (such as a new gas pipeline 650 km south along the west coast from Mexico to Guatemala) are exactly the type of projects that have caused environmental conflicts in the region and that has historically been the cause of displacement and human migration.

The killing and disappearance of many human rights activists, such as the Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Caceres in Honduras is a daily reminder of this. Land grabs from foreign corporations have forced thousands of smallholder farmers off their lands, forcing them to retreat to cities where there are little or no economic opportunities and where they fall into a cycle of urban violence.

Clearly, the causes of the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Central America are complex and multifaceted and there is no silver bullet solution. However, we need to look beyond just gang violence and economic underdevelopment as the primary drivers of immigration.

The struggle of many communities in the Northern Triangle to defend their land, water and livelihoods point to a different narrative. Any analysis of the root causes of immigration in the region needs to take into account the failed political and development policies that, often with the tacit support of the United States, have propelled poverty, gang violence and poverty.

Trying to stop people from leaving their countries by incentivising the privatization and extraction of public resources, and criminalizing those who dissent cannot be the answer.  

Human RightsOpinion
Matthew Burnett-Stuart

Matthew Burnett-Stuart is a British/Italian human rights law graduate of SOAS University. He has worked in the UK and Latin America for different organisations promoting human rights and the replication of successful social impact solutions. He is particularly interested in the sustainable use of resources, human rights and business, and the changing landscapes of international NGOs.
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