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IRC: Migration search trends point to growing displacement from Central America due to COVID, climate change and conflict 

Recent data of the IRC’s CuéntaNos shows an increase in the number of people searching information on identification and migration processes; employment; and women’s services.

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Worsening living conditions across Northern Central America are contributing to an increase in migration flows from the region, warns the International Rescue Committee. 

An analysis of data from November 2020 to end of January 2021 via the IRC’s CuéntaNos—a migration information platform part of the Global Signpost project for users in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—highlights an increase in demand for information on:

  1. Identification and migration — The number of people looking for information related to identification documents (like passports, driver’s licenses or birth certificates) and immigration requirements jumped dramatically. Visits went from 32 in October, to 174 in November (an increase of almost 500%) and grew exponentially the following month, with a 1,500% increase, surpassing 2,800 by the end of December. During January 2021, when the first migrant caravan of the year started its journey, visits remained above 2,000. 
  2. Employment — As post-lockdown economic crunches deepen, IRC’s CuéntaNos experienced an increase in the number of visits regarding employment. From December 2020 to January 2021, when the first caravan was halted in Guatemala, visits increased 121% in Honduras and 42% in El Salvador.
  3. Women’s services and protection — From October to November 2020, when the hurricanes Eta and Iota hit the region, the number of visits to pages on support for gender-based violence increased more than 100% in El Salvador; in Guatemala, visits jumped from 6 to 139. During the same period (October to November) requests from across the region for women’s services and protection information doubled, surpassing 1,100. Requests for services still remain high, with more than 1,000 from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras during the first month of 2021.

At the beginning of March, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) reported that, in just two months of 2021, more than 9,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have requested asylum, comprising 40% of the total of applications submitted in 2020.

IRC experts believe the increased demand for information is due to Northern Central America facing an unprecedented and growing humanitarian crisis, compounded by pandemic lockdown-induced economic slowdowns, growing violence on the streets and in homes, and natural disasters. In November 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota struck within three weeks of each other and left 3.4 million people in need of urgent assistance; last year, 45.4 million people in the region were expected to be forced into poverty due to Covid-19, and women and girls are stuck in overcrowded shelters with limited privacy -- which are overwhelmed from the hurricanes and report increasing sexual violence. IRC’s local network organizations have reported up to a 60-70% increase in reported sexual violence cases in Honduras alone. 

Karla, whose name has been changed to assure anonymity, reached out to the IRC through CuéntaNos seeking help for her friend regarding violence and child protection services. She said, “Days after my friend gave birth, her husband was murdered on his way home from the corner shop. My friend already had a history of psychological trauma and this situation just made it worse. I was not really well-informed on what to do in a situation like this or where to call. Then I found the CuéntaNos website and the WhatsApp number. I was mostly looking for some orientation, so I was grateful that I could find support after regular office hours and that the moderator was able to provide answers to my questions.”

The IRC calls for a desperately-needed surge in aid to Central America and protection-forward asylum reform in the U.S. As long as the underlying “push” factors remain unaddressed, and faced with mounting crisis in Central America, displacement will only continue across the region and towards the US Southern border. 

Meghan López, IRC’s Regional Vice President of Latin America, said, “Two concurrent natural disasters, rising poverty, gender-based violence and COVID cases are plunging millions in Northern Central America into even deeper crisis. Because of compounding needs, more and more people are being—and will be—forced to flee this year. 

“It is abundantly clear from the IRC’s data that international aid is needed to address the root drivers of displacement that cause Northern Central Americans to make the desperate journey out of the region for safety. These drivers include violence, lack of employment, few support services, and the impact of climate-related events. There has been recent and welcome news of the US’ intentions of $4 billion in assistance to Northern Central America, reported to include support for root causes as well as assistance to boost in-country refugee protection systems. These funds are urgently needed in Central America, but it will take a regional and systematic approach to make sustainable change—including ensuring fair and legal access to asylum in the US for what, for now, will be the last and only resort for many  vulnerable people. Collaboration among sectors will be crucial, including international NGOs, to be able to respond to the scope of this crisis and at different stages along the arc of the migration crisis across the region. 

“For those Central Americans seeking safety at the U.S.-Southern border, the IRC has a concrete step-by-step road map for the new Administration to undo restore humanity and order at the U.S. Southern border: surging funding for humanitarian assistance, ensuring protections to asylum-seekers including due process, and significantly increasing legal pathways to safety, such as refugee resettlement, in light of these worsening conditions.”

The IRC implements its programming in collaboration with a network of 280 partners across Central America: 

  • The IRC is currently assisting victims of the two deadly hurricanes with child protection and psychosocial support, as well as distributing hygiene and dignity kits, and cash programming. Verified, trustworthy information continues to be disseminated via the interactive CuéntaNos information platform and its integrated social media and WhatsApp messaging helplines, moderated locally by trained IRC staff.
  • The IRC also responds to urgent needs of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence, providing access to information and life-saving, multi-purpose cash transfers and basic supplies. Part of the IRC’s protection work, that also includes members of the LGBTQ+ community in addition to women and girls, comprises the Safe Spaces in El Salvador and Honduras. These spaces enable individuals affected by violence and displacement to access information through CuéntaNos, referrals, psychosocial support and community programs. 

The IRC’s Meghan López is available for interviews, as are CuéntaNos moderators, immigration policy experts and clients who have sought support through CuéntaNos. To schedule interviews, or to see a breakdown of the raw data used in this release, contact Everardo at Everardo.Esquivel [at] rescue.org.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.