Central American protection initiative gains its 'missing link'

A couple from El Salvador rest at an improvised shelter while waiting for their humanitarian visas to cross the country on their way to the United States, in Mapastepec, in Chiapas state, Mexico. Photo by: REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

WASHINGTON — El Salvador’s new government will join a regional implementation of the Global Compact for Refugees aimed at addressing forced displacement in Central America.

The UN Refugee Agency and the Organization of American States support the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework, known as MIRPS for its acronym in Spanish. While the previous Salvadoran government refused to participate in the regional initiative, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who took office in June, has been outspoken about taking responsibility for his country’s out-migration.

Joining MIRPS will allow the Salvadoran government to participate in dialogue around solving the root causes of forced displacement as well as intergovernmental coordination around asylum and protection efforts.

“You cannot simply attack this or confront the situation by humanitarian response but basically by a development response.”

— Andrés Ramírez Silva, head, COMAR

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, director of the Department of Social Inclusion at OAS, said El Salvador’s joining has been a missing link in the regional cooperation effort: “This is huge news,” Muñoz-Pogossian said. “This is crucial because they’re a country of origin for displaced people that we are trying to support. And it’s very hard to generate activities of cooperation or sharing of information if you have a state that is has displaced people not wanting to share information or to cooperate.”

The expansion comes as the U.S. is putting increasing pressure on Northern Triangle governments to stem migration to the U.S. border. In March, the Trump administration announced it would be cutting off foreign aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala until they meet as-yet-unspecified criteria for funds to resume. Last week, the Trump administration signed a safe third country agreement with Guatemala, requiring any asylum-seekers passing through to first request asylum there before doing so in Mexico or the U.S.

Addressing root causes

In the face of heightened regional displacement, MIRPS grew out of the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants that produced the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which eventually led to the Global Compact for Refugees. In October 2017, Central American countries gathered in Honduras to discuss how they might develop a regional form of the CRRF that uses south-south cooperation to address some of their challenges.

“We started working with all the states in the region trying to say, ‘look, as countries of origin, transit, and destination, you’ve got to come together and you’ve all got to try and both deal with the problem domestically, but you’ve also got to talk to each other and try and work it out regionally, so that you’re all conscious of how this flow is working and you’re all taking solutions in coordination with each other,” said Giovanni Bassu, UNHCR regional representative for Central America and Cuba.

El Salvador joins Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama, the original participants. Nicaragua has “stonewalled” joining MIRPS, Bassu said, despite the country’s political turmoil that has driven more than 60,000 people to flee.

MIRPS employs a multistakeholder approach to help both displaced people and host communities in sectors such as health, education, livelihoods, and security. Each country is responsible for creating measurable and quantifiable three-year national action plans that “deal with their end of the problem,” Bassu said.

“These are state-led. We introduced the idea and we helped them out the first year, but the whole point is that states need to take responsibility. It’s the state responsibility, it’s not a UNHCR responsibility,” Bassu said. “It involves a lot of different parts of the state and UNHCR does not have a lot of capacity to cover a lot of sectors.”

The plans are reviewed annually, and focal points in relevant national ministries communicate with one another as new challenges arise. UNHCR and OAS act as a secretariat for MIRPS, while Mexico serves as the initiative’s president pro tempore, a temporary leadership role. The head of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, Andres Ramirez Silva, works to organize teleconferences and ensure that participating countries are in constant communication to discuss topics such as refugee admission, protection, registration, and integration.

Ramirez Silva also works to engage relevant embassies, donor governments, NGOs, and civil society groups to discuss the goals of MIRPS and what role outside entities can play in its success. He said he has been in talks with U.S. officials on the issue and was scheduled to meet with a U.S. official from the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration last week.

“You have to go to the root causes, otherwise this flow will continue and will continue and will never, never stop. The idea that lies behind this is you cannot simply attack this or confront the situation by humanitarian response but basically by a development response,” Ramirez Silva said. “We have to be able to show that when it comes to some of the high-level operational challenges, that we are able to confront these challenges.”

Responsibility sharing

Budgets remain a challenge to the implementation of MIRPS, with Bassu stressing it can be difficult to get national governments to appropriate funds for addressing forced displacement. UNHCR works with officials to examine budgets, cost actions and get contributions from relevant ministries.

“But at the end there’s always going to be a shortfall and that’s where we would hope the international community can step in,” Bassu said. “Now, if the international community doesn’t step in, then I think the states are going to go ‘oh well, look, no one’s going to help us and we can’t afford it,’ and it’s going to start losing momentum.”

To solve some of those budget challenges, OAS member states commissioned a study with UNHCR to examine the feasibility of a fund to support the implementation of cooperation on displacement and migration issues in the region. Money would help with things such as responding to asylum requests or housing people who have been displaced. MIRPS countries will meet in December at the Global Refugee Forum to discuss whether the ongoing data collection supports standing up such a fund.

Bassu said he hopes that regional responsibility-sharing and problem-solving remains the preferred approach to Central America’s migration challenges and that countries avoid taking unilateral actions such as closing borders. Lessons from successful cooperation through MIRPS can be applied elsewhere in Latin America as well as other parts of the world, Muñoz-Pogossian said.

“We’re thinking if this were to continue the way it’s going and it continues showing success and more wins, this is equally applicable in South America to support Venezuelan displacement, for instance. So there’s replicability within the region,” Muñoz-Pogossian said. “This is something that the Western Hemisphere is contributing to at the global level, so it would also be replicable in Africa or the Middle East or Asia.”

Update Monday, August 5: This story has been updated to clarify that MIRPS is a protection initiative.

About the author

  • Teresa%2520welsh%2520headshot

    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.