UNHCR has mobilized staff and resources to southern Mexico since Thursday, following the arrival at the Mexico/Guatemala border of thousands of people as part of a “caravan” of refugees and migrants travelling from Honduras. Photo by: © UNHCR/Julio López

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Migrants and refugees fleeing violence in Central America have begun taking steps to make the dangerous journey safer by traveling in large groups known as caravans.

Traditionally, migrants and refugees have left their communities alone or in small groups after paying a coyote, or smuggler, who shepherds them from their country of origin to the United States border. En route, they frequently connect with others who are also making the expensive and perilous journey.

“It’s not new for people to get together once they left their countries of origin,” said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, an immigrant organization based in the United States. “What’s actually new here is that for the very first time in the recent past people have gotten together in the same country to leave. To leave as a group. That’s new. We hadn’t seen that before.”

A “migrant caravan” that left Honduras and crossed into Guatemala and Mexico has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump, who has threatened to cut off U.S. foreign assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras if those governments do not stem the flow of people moving north.

It is against international law for a government to prevent its citizens from leaving, and residents of the three countries can move freely among them without visas.

While moving together may help make the journey safer, the large group of migrants and refugees have humanitarian needs that pose a challenge to NGOs who are trying to assist the estimated 7,000 people that now make up the caravan. According to Amnesty International, at least 1,000 people have requested asylum in Mexico.

The U.N. Refugee Agency has deployed over 45 staff to Chiapas on the border between Mexico and Guatemala and said: “Stabilizing the situation has become urgent.” The organization is providing technical help to register asylum seekers as well as addressing needs such as shelter and other specific vulnerabilities.

UNHCR would like to remind countries along this route that this caravan is likely to include people in real danger,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said in a statement. “In any situation like this, it is essential that people have the chance to request asylum and have their international protection needs properly assessed before any decision on return/deportation is made.”

Bartolo Fuentes, a social activist and former member of the Honduran congress who traveled into Guatemala with the caravan, said he was arrested in Guatemala and detained for four days before being returned to Honduras. He has been accused by the Honduran government of organizing the caravan, but Fuentes said the mass departure was organized organically via social networks such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

“I’ve never actually advised anyone to leave Honduras because I know how difficult it is,” Fuentes said. “There is no foundation, there is no NGO, there is no church, there is no political entity that has organized this caravan.”

“There is no foundation, there is no NGO, there is no church, there is no political entity that has organized this caravan.”

— Bartolo Fuentes, social activist and former member of Honduran congress

In addition to blaming Northern Triangle governments for not stemming migration, Trump has said Democrats and the Open Society Foundations are behind the caravan. Fuentes said the Honduran government has also tried to deflect blame from causes of migration such as violence and lack of economic opportunity.

“What they’ve tried to do is criminalize migration and criminalize the people who are in solidarity with them,” Fuentes said. “Those of us who have committed to this cause are now a target. Why are people leaving? Everybody knows. It’s prevailing misery, poverty.” 

Alianza Americas’ Chacón said that drug cartels, gangs, and authoritarian governments have all been perpetrators of the violence that causes people to flee Central America.

“The caravan is telling us in a clear way the huge gap between where the world is located in how to regulate huge migration, movement of people, and where the people are really at,” Chacón said. “The reality is that people are moving in great numbers from south to north and also from south to south, but the rules to regulate this flow are way behind.”

He said NGOs have a lot of work to do in educating people on the root causes of migration, giving governments the space to find permanent solutions to such problems.

“It’s going to be very hard for us to find legal solutions that will match the reality,” Chacón said. “If we are not capable of solving this issue, this is going to be a never-ending tale.”

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.