The Humanitarian Response to the ‘Migrant Caravans’
In October and November 2018, thousands of Hondurans and Salvadorans, and later Guatemalans and Nicaraguans, left their countries of origin and travelled north, fleeing from the daily reality of endemic violence, poverty and human rights violations, in groups known as the ‘migrant caravans’.
Over the course of 2018, the figures of how many people made the journey from the North of Central America (NCA) to Mexico and the United States are difficult to establish, however, it is known that 196’061 people were deported back to the region, a 38% increase compared to 2017 . In general, people who need to move north have two options: go alone and risk the perilous journey without assistance, or pay up to 10,000 USD to use a people smuggling network. Both options are dangerous, with risks of kidnapping, homicide, abuse and exploitation.
In contrast to the usual patterns of migration and displacement, the ‘migrant caravans’ stood out due to people travelling collectively in large groups. While travelling with a caravan is not without its own risks, it is often seen as a protection strategy, or as an opportunity to travel without having to pay the prohibitive costs.
Although it was not the first time that collective displacements have occurred in the region, what was particularly striking was the size of the caravans, and consequentially the challenges that this created for the humanitarian sector and for the overall response to displacement in the NCA. Given the current protection situation in the region, it is highly probably that this phenomenon will be repeated in 2019.
Reflecting on the humanitarian response to the caravans in late 2018, what lessons can be drawn for future displacements in the region?
From the 13th of October to the 21st of November, between 12’000 and 16’000 people crossed the borders between Guatemala and Mexico in four caravans . 48% of those traveling in the caravan came from Honduras and 39% from El Salvador.
By the end of November, the Estado Benito Juárez shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, hosted 6’000 people waiting to cross the border with the United States . The shelter lacked in sufficient food, water and health services .
By December, 3’700 people had sought asylum in Mexico. Between the 15th of October and the 15th of December, 7’225 people had been returned to Honduras, and 1’275 to El Salvador .
Displaced people travelling with the caravan faced a multitude of risks and obstacles en route, including border closures, militarised responses from states, returns in involuntary conditions, including cases of non-refoulement, a lack of shelters available (including for children and non-accompanied minors), xenophobia, sexual violence, and organised crime, including kidnappings, abuse, exploitation and trafficking.
Protection for displaced people in countries of destination is seriously lacking, due to: long waiting times at borders (in particular at the Guatemalan/Mexican border and the Mexican/US border), a progressive hardening of border and migration policies, and various attempts to limit the right to asylum in the United States.
In Honduras and Guatemala, the humanitarian response was led by local and community organisations, and was supported by international organisations and UN agencies. Several local authorities worked to meet basic needs. In Mexico, the response was led by the Mexican state, and was supported by local and international organisations. However, in all of the transit points the collective capacity to respond was overwhelmed by the needs.
Without the official declaration of a humanitarian emergency in Honduras and Guatemala, many teams and organisations on the frontline increased their capacity to respond on an ad hoc basis, working double shifts and overnights, without receiving extra funding or support.
Despite efforts from the humanitarian sector, displaced people needed more information on services and rights.
Stronger coordination to advocate against the increasing criminalisation and stigmatisation of migrants and displaced people is necessary.
This report is the third snapshot on protection in the North of Central America; an initiative of the Regional Protection Group of the REDLAC, led by the Norwegian Refugee Council. The analysis is based on information provided by humanitarian organisations operating in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as from monitoring of official statistics, press, academic studies and reports from civil society. The document includes inputs from a variety of organisations of the Protection Group, but does not reflect messages approved by each organisation.