Food Security and Emigration: Why people flee and the impact on family members left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras

Executive Summary

Building on the results and recommendations of the exploratory study on the links between Migration and Food Security (“Hunger without Borders”, 2015), WFP and its partners decided to further study linkages between food insecurity and migration, relying on qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Emigration (or out-migration) trends in Central America are conditioned by political and socioeconomic conditions in the region and increase in response to civil strife and poverty. This study collected and analysed data on food security and environmental and climatic factors as potential triggers for out-migration. The geographical focus of the study was El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, particularly the most vulnerable part of these countries known as the Dry Corridor.

The propensity to migrate from food insecure regions of Central America is higher among the younger and more vulnerable people. While migration from Mexico to the USA diminished in recent years, the flow of emigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has increased substantially since 2010. While the proportion of women and young people among the emigrants from the Dry Corridor increased in the past two years, the majority of people leaving their country are men.

According to the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the number of “illegal aliens” as defined by the CBP, who were “apprehended” or detained in the Southwest border region of the USA, increased from around 50,000 during the fiscal year (FY) 2010 to more than 250,000 in FY 2014. Although the number of apprehended declined in FY 2015 to 218,810 people, in FY 2016, this number increased to 408,870. Although more apprehensions do not necessarily imply a greater migrant flows, apprehensions are often considered as a proxy indicator of the total number of persons who attempt to cross the border irregularly during a certain period.

The almost 50 percent increase from FY 2015 to FY 2016 in the number of unaccompanied children (persons 16 years old or under) apprehended by USA border authorities is of great concern. Emigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras returned by the Mexican authorities to their respective countries of origin were primarily men (79 percent) and 50 percent of them were working in the agricultural sector before migrating.

Emigrants reported the lack of employment or economic hardship (65 percent), followed by low income and poor working conditions (19 percent) and violence and insecurity (9 percent) as the main reasons for migrating. Family reunification was only indicated as a reason in one percent of the responses, according to official reports.

The Dry Corridor is generally characterized by high unemployment, limited and seasonal labour demands and low and irregularly paid wages. More than half of the households interviewed reported spending more than two thirds of their income on food, which reflects a high level of economic vulnerability to food insecurity. Recent years have seen household food production further reduced due to poor rainfall and droughts linked to the El Niño phenomenon.

Outside the Dry Corridor, employment opportunities in coffee production have also been reduced due to the coffee rust crisis. Adverse climatic conditions in the Dry Corridor affect food security by curbing agricultural productivity in commercial and subsistence farming as well as agricultural work opportunities. The El Niño drought conditions that started in 2014 caused a significant increase in irregular migration to the USA.

For this study, three national teams visited key districts, previously identified by key informants as having significant emigration to the USA. In addition, secondary data analysis was conducted using information provided by Mexican and and USA migration authorities.

This information was complemented with key informant interviews, separate focus group discussions with men and women and a household food security survey. The survey targeted families where members had left the country since the last El Niño episode (2014-2016).

A qualitative study was conducted in 22 communities of the Dry Corridor in the three countries. Fifty-four key informants were interviewed, while some 660 community members participated in 44 focus group discussions (one for men and women in each location). Participants in the focus group discussions estimated that around 35 percent of emigrants from El Salvador, 25 percent from Guatemala and 9 percent from Honduras travelled with a valid visa but then stayed in the USA beyond the validity of their visas. Those who travel with valid visas usually have the necessary financial and social capital to facilitate their journey. However, migrants who travel without valid visas often use a migrant smuggler, pay high costs and acquire debt, often using their assets (such as a house and/or land) as collateral.

Thus, emigration negatively impacts family members left behind, who have to assume the debts incurred. Debts levels increase in cases of unsuccessful emigration. Successful migrants provide vital support to the family who is left behind by regularly sending remittances.

In the cases of successful emigration, 78 percent of households in the home country receive monthly “remittances”, of which 42 percent indicate that remittances are their only source of income.

More than half of the funds are used to buy food, followed by agricultural investments (buying land and animals) and investments in small businesses. Remittances are also spent on education and healthcare. Improved family well-being, especially enhanced diets, are some of the main impacts of remittances on households in the home country.

When those families do not receive remittances or other assistance, their economic situation progressively worsens. This may also result in changes in the division of labour in the family.

Those household shifts may result in household members assuming different roles with related negative consequences. For example, women often have to undertake the agricultural activities of departed men on top of their traditional domestic responsibilities. Overall, emigration reduces the available work force and if not offset by remittances, typically results in increased food insecurity and deepening of poverty.

There is clearly is a link between food insecurity and emigration from the three countries. Poverty and unemployment are the general causes of emigration, followed by reduced agricultural productivity, adverse climatic events such as droughts, pests that result in crop losses and the widespread occurrence of violence. The high rates of food insecurity found in the households that participated in this study demonstrate the linkages between emigration and food insecurity. Nearly half (47 percent) of the families interviewed during this study were food insecure (38 percent were moderately food insecure and 9 percent were severely food insecure). These levels of food insecurity have not been previously seen in the region, including in the results of various assessments over the past three years that focused on drought and the effects of El Niño in the Dry Corridor.

The findings revealed that nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of households are already applying emergency coping strategies: such as selling land. Again, this is well above what is normally seen in the region in times of shock. What increases concerns is that none of the households had the capacity to apply less extreme “stress coping” strategies, as they had already depleted such options. This reflects a concerning cumulative effect over time on food insecurity, as well as the very limited resilience such households have to protect themselves against shocks and their effects.

While only 19 percent of interviewed households had unacceptably low food consumption levels, the lack of dietary diversity is of major concern, even among those households with adequate total consumption levels. This finding is not new for the Dry Corridor, but it raises concerns about overall dietary quality and its impacts on health and nutrition.

Guatemala, in particular, has levels of food consumption that point to a major problem, with 42 percent of interviewed households having poor or borderline food consumption levels.

Violence also plays an important role in serving as a reason for migration in El Salvador, where it was reported as a sensitive trigger, while in Guatemala and Honduras it was found to be less important.

The information collected through this study allows for the development of several policy and programmatic recommendations aiming at mitigating the impact of the variables acting as emigration push-factors, with a focus on food insecurity.

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