The homicidal brutality in Central America has spawned a humanitarian disaster … Families have taken the journey anyway, not because they are determined to flout [US] immigration laws – but because they want not to be murdered.
– New York Times editorial, 16 January 2016
In the past five years, organised violence in Central America has increased in intensity, volume and geographical spread. What a decade ago were mostly isolated events that could be attributed to identifiable causes is now a pervasive crisis that threatens the stability and viability of communities and the region as a whole. The epicentre of this violence is located in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, often referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA). These three countries have the highest homicide rates per capita in the world, resulting in the deaths of 17,400 people in 2015. Homicide rates are eight times higher than the global average, and several times higher than those registered in many conflicts. According to Insight Crime, in 2015 the number of violent deaths in Yemen was some 36 per 100,000 inhabitants. In El Salvador the figure was 103 per 100,000, in Honduras 60 per 100,000 and in Guatemala 30 per 100,000. Rates of violent death above ten per 100,000 are considered an epidemic. Forced displacement of entire communities, sexual violence against women and girls, widespread child recruitment, lack of access to life-saving medical care and basic education, attacks on the medical mission: these and other known consequences of war are found here as well. Given the urgent relief needs of this growing humanitarian crisis, an ad hoc, developmental response is no longer appropriate, sufficient or effective.
Violence and conflict: defining the problem
The violence currently devastating Central America involves multiple actors competing with each other to establish a sort of tribal control over resources or territory, relying heavily on the use of armed threats, extortion and retaliation against communities. It is not, however, at a level of intensity that would qualify as an armed conflict in terms of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Some call this ‘non-conventional violence’. Political, security and judicial institutions have been corrupted and have lost legitimacy, and paramilitary security forces have also been engaged in violence as part of the heavy-handed tactics governments have used against organised crime. Local organised armed groups known as maras, either assisting foreign drug cartels or operating independently, have attained such a position of power and influence that, in many areas, national authorities are unable to provide security, enforce the rule of law, assure governance or regulate access to basic services.
The scale and nature of the violence in Central America is generating significant humanitarian needs. This has necessitated the increasing engagement of key humanitarian actors, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO)/Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has made addressing the humanitarian consequences of the violence in Central America an operational priority, and in 2014 published a policy document defining its role in situations of violence outside of armed conflict.
Needs: symptoms of a growing humanitarian crisis
An estimated 714,500 people across Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have been internally displaced. Despite the fact that one in three would qualify for international protection, less than a quarter of those registered as displaced receive assistance, and only Honduras has taken steps to incorporate the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into national legislation. UNHCR, Women on the Run: First-hand Accounts of Refugees Fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, October 2015. There has also been a 25% increase in the number of asylum applications qualifying for refugee status since 2011.
Basic services, in particular health and education, are virtually non-existent in areas affected by violence. In urban areas of El Salvador, between a third and a half of the population do not have access to health services because gangs control movement across their territory. Health workers and other staff have also been directly targeted. Schools are being used as recruiting centres for armed gangs, with students and staff under relentless threat. In El Salvador, up to 39,000 students dropped out of the public school system due to violence in 2015, and in 2016 nine teachers and 71 students were killed.
A humanitarian concern?
Despite the scale of the violence and its devastating impact on Central American society, many question whether this is a humanitarian crisis at all. Sceptics often cite issues of mandate, capacity and the definition of needs when questioning whether humanitarians should be involved.
Do humanitarian actors have a mandate to respond in what has consistently been labelled a crime and narcotics crisis better left to the security forces? There is ample precedent for humanitarians providing relief in situations similar to what is happening in Central America, including ICRC and MSF programmes in Cité Soleil, Haiti, from 2004 to 2006, and Save the Children’s work in Cali, Medellin and Buenaventura in Colombia from 2010 to 2014. Humanitarian actors justifiably consider that, regardless of the cause, when there is a sufficient volume of unmet humanitarian needs and their assistance has clear added value, they are morally justified in acting. Given that large areas of these countries are effectively outside of government control, it is clear that the provision of humanitarian assistance, delivered by neutral and impartial actors, proportionate in scale and appropriate to the needs of the affected population, is urgent, relevant and should be delivered.
As middle-income countries, sceptics ask: shouldn’t the responsible authorities have the capacity to address needs? Regardless of whether the capacity (and political will) exists, documented humanitarian needs in virtually all sectors are unmet. Governments tend to focus on the security aspects of the problem, and respond with police measures rather than assistance. The fiscal crisis in El Salvador has led the government to recognise the need for assistance and ask for humanitarian funding from the UN to augment support to victims of violence, including the internally displaced, victims of sexual violence and children at risk of forced recruitment. Honduras, having recognised the need for protection and assistance to internally displaced people, has requested humanitarian assistance with the stated aim of increasing institutional budgets for social protection.
Are the needs humanitarian needs? Although these are officially post-conflict countries, the humanitarian consequences of shocking levels of violence differ little, if at all, from armed conflicts. When, for instance, relief actors in crises like Yemen or Iraq seek to measure humanitarian need, they focus on indicators such as the number of people killed or injured, the volume of displacement and the forced recruitment of children, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and the need for protection and psychological support. These indicators are all present in the Northern Triangle. The victims of nonconventional violence are no less entitled to receive humanitarian assistance than the people of Iraq, Syria or Yemen.
Responding to needs
Much of the current response in the Northern Triangle is framed around a development approach that seeks to end needs (prevent violence, reform the justice system, create employment) rather than providing life-saving protection and assistance. There is no doubt that development programmes are of critical importance in addressing the root causes of violence in Central America. However, this should not be at the expense of reducing or overlooking the role of a principled, needs-based humanitarian approach. The nature and scale of unmet needs for people and communities affected by violence is so critical, and the relief being offered so limited, that essential life-saving humanitarian action should be provided now. This is a largely forgotten crisis.
In many low-intensity conflicts, the capacity of national actors to provide systematic and needs-based humanitarian assistance is imperfect. This applies equally to the situation in Central America. Regional and national policies tend to focus on the security dimension, national actors are sometimes themselves responsible for violence and the authorities lack the resources and technical capacity to provide adequate assistance. Neutral and impartial humanitarian actors are therefore critical in effectively meeting humanitarian needs. Over the past two years, an increasing number of humanitarian actors have begun implementing projects to meet the needs of victims. Even limited humanitarian funding can make a difference. In one example, a small European Commission Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) grant to UNHCR in 2014 documented forced displacement in Honduras, leveraging awareness among Honduran authorities to recognise displacement and to incorporate the Guiding Principles on the human rights of IDPs into national legislation. Other projects have provided emergency health services, protection against the recruitment of children into gangs and against sexual abuse, legal services for asylum-seekers, psychosocial support to victims and negotiation of humanitarian access.
In responding to non-conventional violence, relief actors have had to improve information-gathering and analysis to enable appropriate and effective assistance. This includes defining success indicators and better data collection and informationsharing at national and regional levels. Campaigns and analysis to raise awareness and expand the response have sought to generate a common understanding of needs, challenges and opportunities. The Norwegian Refugee Council has campaigned on children affected by violence with the European parliament, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Organization of American States (OAS) have published studies on the links between food insecurity, violence and displacement and UNHCR has produced thematic studies on displaced women and children. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) now includes information on violence in humanitarian overviews and is tracking related indicators. While these projects demonstrate that it is possible and necessary to apply a humanitarian lens to the situation in Central America, more remains to be done to ensure that real-time data and analysis are available to humanitarian decision-makers.
Humanitarians are often asked to produce robust evidence of need where lives are at risk and the consequences of insufficient action can be deadly. The situation now in Central America calls for a response in accordance with the level of need.
Wendy Cue is Head of the OCHA Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. Vicente Raimundo Núñez-Flores is Head of the Regional Office for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, ECHO. The views in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent the official positions of their agencies.