COVID-19 halts Northern Triangle migration, but deportations continue

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Guatemalans walk toward a bus after being deported from the U.S. outside La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photo by: REUTERS / Fabricio Alonso

WASHINGTON — Strict COVID-19 mobility restrictions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have all but stopped migration north from the Northern Triangle, while the U.S. has continued deportations despite the global pandemic.

“This situation is causing mental health problems in the migrant population.”

— Patricia Hernández León, Mexico country director, Jesuit Refugee Service

Lockdowns, curfews, and other government regulations are preventing people in the Northern Triangle from leaving their homes for everything but essential trips for food and medicine. These restrictions have ground large-scale migration to a halt, said International Rescue Committee Director of Latin America Meghan López.

“We are seeing extremely small numbers, if any,” López said, noting that anyone who is moving is at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.

Migration across the U.S. southern border, which remains closed to asylum-seekers because of the pandemic, peaked in May 2019. The increasing number of people trying to cross led the Trump administration last March to withdraw foreign assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras until the three countries reduced outward migration. The U.S. government has since resumed some of that money, citing fewer people arriving on the border since last spring.

López said it is difficult for NGOs to monitor the exact numbers of people migrating at the moment because shelters are closed, staff are restricted from field activity and most are working from home. She said that in El Salvador, but increasingly in Honduras and Guatemala as well, police presence in the streets, curfews, and other restrictions are making it difficult for people to move about internally. Gangs are also enforcing curfews, López said.

These conditions leave people who are migrating during this time particularly vulnerable and without the host of shelter, health, legal, and protection services usually available.

“Due to the government shutdowns and checkpoints and things like that, if they chose to move they must move off the beaten path,” López said. “That pushes them into gang or any narcotraffic territories, depending on which countries that they’re in.”

Many shelters, clinics, and other programs for people on the move have been shuttered due to COVID-19, so IRC is updating cuentanos.org — its online tool that maps services in El Salvador and Honduras, and will soon do so in Guatemala — to reflect those closures. During a public health emergency, it is vital that people have up-to-date information about services they can access, López said.

In Guatemala, where most migrants pass to enter Mexico and move north to the U.S., movement between departments is prohibited. But restrictions across the border in Mexico are not as severe, and Jesuit Refugee Service’s Mexico country director, Patricia Hernández León, said there are still people there who are seeking help from NGOs.

In the Mexican border city of Tapachula, “We’re still getting calls from new people that are looking for us,” Hernández León said. “The migratory flow on the southern border on the normal routes that we’ve identified have definitely been reduced … This doesn’t mean that people aren’t entering through other clandestine routes.”

When people arrive in Mexico, JRS provides legal assistance to explain to people what their options are. While some choose to continue north, JRS works with people who decide to apply for asylum in Mexico — a process that has been paused during the pandemic because Mexican refugee agency COMAR is not reviewing applications. Hernández León said asylum applications typically take about three months to process, but the current situation is leaving many in limbo for an even longer period of time.

“This situation is causing mental health problems in the migrant population,” Hernández León said. “Since the second week of confinement, [our psychologists] started to observe that people began to have very high levels of stress, including identifying more cases than normal of psychiatric issues.”

JRS does not have not psychiatrists on staff, so those cases require referrals. Public health recommendations prevent typical support groups from meeting in person, so JRS is working to develop activities people can do from home to keep them connected during the pandemic, while they await the status of their asylum claims. The NGO is also providing rent assistance to people who are waiting in Tapachula and helping them access food and medicine because it is nearly impossible to earn an income during this time.

People that do not wish to seek asylum in Mexico and instead intend to reach the U.S. are not being allowed to do so, with the Trump administration suspending U.S. asylum petitions during the pandemic. This has not stopped deportations back to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The International Organization for Migration is working with regional authorities to assist those being sent back to the Northern Triangle on deportation flights, helping them navigate the different quarantine and mobility restrictions put in place. Jorge Peraza Breedy, IOM’s chief of mission for the Northern Triangle countries, said this involves assisting people that have spent years living — or being detained — in the U.S.

“You can imagine that arriving in your own country and then being sent, for example in the case of El Salvador, to another 30 days of quarantine, is also very hard for the people,” Peraza Breedy said. “It’s important to [orient] these people once they arrive, therefore we are also helping the entities that are in charge of managing those quarantine centers.”

In El Salvador, people arriving from the U.S. must be quarantined in a government facility for 30 days. In Honduras, the quarantine period is 14 days. In Guatemala, people are allowed to self-quarantine in their own homes. Some deportation flights are being delayed, Peraza Breedy said, if someone onboard is found to have symptoms of COVID-19, making it difficult for IOM to ensure the appropriate services will be available when needed because the flight schedules have been erratic.

Last week, the first group of people who had been required to complete 30 days of quarantine in a government facility in El Salvador completed that requirement. IOM gave them gift cards to supermarkets and gathered additional data to determine what other needs they may have. Public transit is not operating, so IOM is facilitating transportation back to various parts of the country.

IRC has called on the U.S. to halt deportation flights during the pandemic, but López acknowledges that this is unlikely to happen.

“The deportation is increasing risk. As we look globally, we’re all more connected and as we’re trying to all reduce movement it seems quite counterintuitive to then force movement,” López said. “This should not be a leverage to step back from our global humanitarian responsibilities.”

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About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was 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.