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Humanitarian Pathways for Central Americans: Assessing Opportunities for the Future

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Scaling Up Refugee Resettlement and Other Protection Pathways for Central Americans May Be Challenging but U.S., Canadian Policymakers & Others Should Do, New Brief Argues

WASHINGTON — The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since 2014 has changed the face of migration throughout the region, with many seeking protection via increasingly strained asylum systems in the United States and Mexico. Asylum applications in Mexico rose 3,739 percent between 2015 and 2021, with Central Americans comprising a large share of applicants. And in the United States, Central Americans represented 44 percent of all asylum claims submitted in U.S. immigration courts in fiscal year (FY) 2021.

As asylum seekers move through the region in large numbers, some policymakers have begun to revisit the role that refugee resettlement could play in addressing these protection needs and to embrace the idea of a regional approach to humanitarian protection for Central Americans. In 2020, only about 550 refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were resettled through programs facilitated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A Migration Policy Institute (MPI) brief out today examines whether resettlement and other humanitarian pathways such as in-country processing and private sponsorship could—or should—play a greater role in addressing Central American protection needs, and if so, how those pathways could be scaled up.

“Resettlement and other humanitarian pathways have a clear role to play in addressing the protection needs of Central Americans,” write MPI analysts Susan Fratzke and Andrea Tanco. “Although resettlement is not likely to be a viable option for the majority of individuals in the region who are seeking safety, it can be a valuable tool—alongside in-country protection mechanisms and asylum capacity-building—for providing access to protection for people who cannot find security in their home or neighboring countries.”

Already, there is a growing focus on expanding resettlement. The Biden administration raised the FY 2022 resettlement quota for Latin America and the Caribbean to 15,000 places—triple the prior year allocation. Canada also has shown interest in expanding resettlement of Central Americans. Yet scaling resettlement up will be complicated, the brief notes, given limited data on refugee populations that results in reliance on local partners, a network of nongovernmental organizations, that are not always familiar with resettlement program requirements.

The brief also examines use of the Protection Transfer Arrangement, by which a small number of the most at-risk individuals are relocated to a facility in Costa Rica to await resettlement processing. The program’s high costs and risks associated with transferring cases before they are fully vetted make it an option in only the most at-risk cases.

To address these challenges, the brief offers several strategies for U.S. and Canadian policymakers and UNHCR, including:

  • **Build the protection capacity of local NGOs. **The ability of NGOs to protect the individuals whose cases they have submitted for resettlement processing is critical to the resettlement program’s mission, but it is also a key bottleneck in the referral and processing system. Funding should continue to be dedicated to supporting the growth of the NGO network, including to new locations within Central American countries, and to ensuring that NGO partners receive high-quality training on how to prepare case files.
  • **Improve processing times and address resettlement backlogs. **Lengthy resettlement processing times are a central barrier to resettlement for Central Americans. The United States has one of the longest processing times of any resettlement country, and pandemic-related delays have exacerbated this. The U.S. government should continue to dedicate resources to identifying ways to streamline and simplify resettlement screening.
  • Continue to grow other humanitarian pathways such as private sponsorship of refugees and family reunification. The private sponsorship program the United States plans to launch could play a valuable role in supporting refugee identification efforts by allowing diaspora and civil-society groups connected to the region to participate in nominating individuals who may be eligible for resettlement. While Central Americans have typically been less represented in the Canadian private sponsorship program, civil society and diaspora in Canada could similarly make use of that program to provide another pathway to Canada.

You can read the brief, Humanitarian Pathways for Central Americans: Assessing Opportunities for the Future, here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/humanitarian-pathways-central-americans.

And in Spanish here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/vias-humanitarias-personas-centroamericanas.

This work is the latest from MPI’s Building a Regional Migration System project. It presents a new approach to managing regional migration that is centered around four specific pillars: effective humanitarian protection systems, targeted legal pathways, professionalized migration management and informed investments in development and governance in countries of origin, transit and reception.