UN, international NGOs boost Central America presence amid migrant and refugee crisis

Asylum seekers mainly from Central America on top of cargo train, Ixtepec, Oaxaca State, Mexico. Photo by: UNHCR / A.S. Alfonzo

NEW YORK — While local civil society organizations continue to lead responses to the migration crisis in Central America, international organizations are increasingly stepping up to support their operations and establish their own presence in the region for the foreseeable future.

The expanding work of groups such as the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Committee of the Red Cross over the past few years is necessary to respond to the intensifying crisis, experts from these organizations say.

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Yet some organizations are still working to understand their role in navigating the complex, fast-changing migration dynamics in the region — and, most recently, the crisis at the United States-Mexico border following the Trump administration’s decree to separate undocumented families upon apprehension at the border.

While homicide rates in the “Northern Triangle” dipped last year, the various impacts of pervasive, transnational organized crime — ranging from weak rule of law to narcotics trade — have pushed Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. Migrant and refugee routes in the Central America and Caribbean region now host about 25 percent of all migrants and refugees in the world, according to IOM.

In response, the number of asylum applications to the U.S. from Northern Triangle countries has spiked, from 11,503 in December 2011 to 130,500 by the end of 2017, according to UNHCR. Just 39,300 of all these cumulative applications resulted in refugee status. And Mexico has also doubled its asylum claims rate each year since 2015, according to UNHCR’s Mexico spokesperson Francesca Fontanini.

Marcelo Pisani, IOM’s regional director for Central America, North America, and the Caribbean, said that prior to 2014, the organization’s work in Central America focused on trafficking. But as more people fled escalating violence, donors have become increasingly interested in supporting migrants and refugees.

“The issue of migration is in the agenda now everywhere. I have been working with the IOM since 1999, and at that moment when I joined IOM, migration was on the table, but not as strong as it is now. Central America is one of the most dynamic migration corridors in the world,” said Pisani. “Because of the issue of migration becoming more relevant, we as IOM have to be also at the level that is required.”

Now, the organization is also boosting its focus on community stabilization, and supporting governments’ work in resettling returned migrants in the Northern Triangle’s Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. This can be complicated by the tendency for migrants and vulnerable populations’ to seek to remain invisible, according to Pisani.

UNHCR, meanwhile, has opened four new offices in the Northern Triangle and southern Mexico region in the last two years — two in Guatemala, one in Honduras, and one in Mexico — for a total of nine offices in the region. Much of their work is centered on assisting local organizations — many with support of Catholic churches — run migrant and refugee shelters along popular migrant and refugee routes.

Increasingly, UNHCR has also been assisting families — in particular, those seeking refuge in another country. This speaks to the growing trend of unaccompanied children and families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, even as the total number of migrants and refugees apprehended there is at its lowest level since the 1970s, according to the advocacy and research organization Washington Office on Latin America.

“There has definitely been an increase [in our presence], and also the level of staff capacity has, and the number of offices,” Fontanini said in a phone interview.  

“It is necessary, because the number of people looking for international protection is increasing. We have to be able to respond to the situation. Because of the level of violence [in the region], the repercussions for people are not going to stop any time soon in Central America,” she continued.

Available funding for UNHCR in the Northern Triangle and Mexico has not matched its expanding planned response, however.

UNHCR’s requested budget was about $80 million for Latin America in 2013, and steadily increased to reach more than $160 million in 2018 — still UNHCR’s smallest regional budget. But last year, UNHCR received only about $86 million of the $151 million it sought for the Americas. So far, UNHCR has received only 10 percent of its requested annual 2018 budget.

ICRC has also increased its humanitarian work in the region since it established its first program there in 2011. Its programs address access to basic health services in Honduras and also offer psychological counsel to minors in Guatemala, alongside the Norwegian Red Cross.

“We are facing more and more situations where it is not a formal conflict, but there are high levels of violence which affect the lives of people. This is a region which has this [conflict zone] element.”

— Alberto Cabezas Talavero, communications officer at ICRC Mexico

Still, its $85.9 million allocation to the Americas for 2018 remains relatively small, making up 5 percent of its total field budget.

While their programs are relatively new as compared to ICRC’s work in other regions, the humanitarian situation in Central America — not a conflict zone, but facing many of the challenges that typically accompany a war-torn setting — isn’t unique, Alberto Cabezas Talavero, communications officer at ICRC Mexico, explained.

“We bring the experience that we have in other contexts, so the programs are not so different in a way. We are facing more and more situations where it is not a formal conflict, but there are high levels of violence which affect the lives of people. This is a region which has this [conflict zone] element,” he said.  

Migration from Central America to the U.S. — outpacing Mexican migration in the past several years — and other countries has also presented a new climate for Save the Children. The organization has steadily operated in Guatemala since 1999 and Honduras and El Salvador since the early 1980s, partially restrained by funding challenges in some cases, said John Farden, the associate vice president of Save the Children USA’s international programs.

“I traveled to El Salvador in 2014 and the work [Save the Children] are doing at a national scale, working with partners, is really [beyond] their budget, for sure,” he said.

But it is the Trump administration’s recent separation of more than 2,500 migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border that is prompting Save the Children to reconsider how it can most effectively engage at the border and across Central America. It announced a new partnership this week with U.S.-based organizations including the American Immigration Council to aid in legal representation of families and reunification work, still underway following a lapsed reunification deadline of July 10.

“For lots of groups … it has been a period of trying to figure out what are best ways we can engage.”

— John Farden, associate vice president of Save the Children USA’s international programs.

Save the Children is among the international organizations, including the U.N. Children’s Fund and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, that have recently condemned the forced separations, but still lack a formal presence both at the U.S. border and within U.S. migrant detention facilities. Much of that work is conducted by long-standing domestic nonprofit and legal organizations, Farden explained.

Prompted by the news of the separations, Save the Children devised a strategy within a week in early July. It involves speaking out against the “harmful policies” of the Trump administration, while focusing on the root causes of migration in Central America.

“Last month and the month before, we had a lot of conversations on what the right role would be. We felt the most important thing was for us to speak out and to use our network at Save the Children and with our action network, to mobilize to push back against the harmful policies,” Farden said.

The relief and advocacy organization, like others, is still trying to find its way in a complicated environment.

“For lots of groups … it has been a period of trying to figure out what are best ways we can engage. How do we not duplicate efforts, how do we make sure we are using systems already in place?” Farden explained.

“Everyone feels in triage right now, trying to get a lay of the land. It still is a bit of a mystery how this is all going to be resolved.”

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  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.