In visiting Central America over the past 30 years, I am consistently surprised at the region’s striking contrasts. The deadly violence and injustice that plague it sit side by side with a rich tradition of solidarity and a vibrant civil society. The displacement caused by organised crime contrasts starkly with noble regional initiatives designed to protect communities. The Cartagena Declaration in 1984 laid the foundations for common efforts to protect the region’s displaced communities. In 2014, the Brazil Action Plan intensified these efforts. As Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), I encouraged states meeting in Brazil to adopt a plan to better respond to new challenges throughout the region. Unfortunately, the need to build common solutions today is as pertinent as it was in 1984.
On the brink
Endemic violence and crime has significantly compounded humanitarian needs in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Close to 3 million people rely on humanitarian assistance in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – nearly 10% of the total population. ACAPS, Crisis Overview 2016: Humanitarian Trends and Risks for 2017, 30 November 2016. These three countries are on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, with the situation likely to deteriorate in coming months. We are faced with the real possibility that 2017 will see the Northern Triangle become one of the ten most serious humanitarian crises in the world. ibid. Extortion, threats, kidnapping, rape, homicide and forced recruitment of minors are part of everyday life. Widespread violence has led to a crisis of protection on a scale unprecedented for areas not at war.
The impact of the violence on people’s lives is devastating. El Salvador and Honduras have some of the highest homicide rates in the world – higher even than countries in armed conflict. In Guatemala, over 90 murders a week were reported in 2015. Young people are worst affected, with boys and girls as young as eight forced into drug-trafficking, collecting extortion payments and surveillance. In Honduras, the NRC found that, in areas where criminal gangs were present, boys and girls had become parents in one in every five households, and in eight out of ten cases girls received no support from the father of their child. One in four teenage girls had become pregnant at least once. See W radio, ‘Study warns that 640,000 young people neither work nor study in Honduras’, 20 October 2016, http://www.wradio.com.co/noticias/internacional/estudio-alerta-que-640000-jovenes-ni-traba- jan-ni-estudian-en-honduras/20161020/nota/3279984.aspw. Where is the protection for these innocent girls and boys? Along with their childhoods, children and young people are also being robbed of an education. They are forced to move schools or abandon their education completely because of the violence. Direct threats by criminal gangs have caused schools to close. In Honduras, one child per family is out of school in areas most affected by violence. Without adequate education, attention and protection, children are easy prey for criminal gangs.
Unheaded warnings and public distrust
Despite stark warnings, governments in the region have been unable to prevent displacement or systematically respond to the immediate needs of families forced to flee their homes. Despite nascent public policies there are no legal frameworks that specifically promote protection and assistance for displaced people. High levels of distrust, especially of police forces and the army, mean that families generally do not look to institutional protection when they need help. The very institutions set up to protect them have failed them.
With few options, many flee the region completely. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that at least 400,000 migrants try to reach the United States from Central America or Mexico every year. IOM, http://oim.org.mx/hechos-y-cifras-2. This movement of people is closely linked to widespread violence. The global annual number of asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle increased five-fold between 2012 and 2015, reaching 110,000 by 2015. To avoid detection, families are forced to pay smugglers, corrupt officials and kidnappers, and are using more dangerous, risky and isolated routes through Mexico. We are also seeing a substantial increase in migration by unaccompanied minors: according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), 35,000 fled to the US from Mexico in 2015 – nine times the number reported four years before. International Crisis Group, ‘Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration’, 28 July 2016. Meanwhile, mass deportations from the US and Mexico continue unabated: the two countries deported 241,000 Central Americans between October 2014 and September 2015. ibid. US President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the border with Mexico will only deepen the looming crisis ahead.
A three-step solution
Three concrete steps must be taken now to better protect communities in the Northern Triangle, and prevent El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from joining the list of the world’s ten worst crises. First, the governments of these three countries must restore their citizens’ trust in state institutions. People must believe that their governments can and will protect them. There should be no reason to choose to flee. Simultaneously, governments must rapidly advance plans to set up and strengthen legal frameworks to protect displaced people. In the meantime, the humanitarian response in these communities must be urgently improved. Second, consensus must be reached at the regional level on how to address displacement, including strengthening the common understanding achieved in the 2014 Brazil Action Plan and the more recent San Jose Declaration. Good practices and tools, along with standards for protection, can no longer be postponed. Third, the human and financial resources to deal with this crisis must be significantly increased. The international community has a concrete role to play, but must act now, before the situation deteriorates further. International cooperation is vital to promote lasting solutions and stop the cycle of violence in the region.
My experience has shown that, time and again, processes that build from bottom to top work best. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras must each address the complex regional situation based on their own realities and experience. The countries of the Northern Triangle must improve their protection regimes and identify common humanitarian solutions associated with mixed migratory flows, including migrants, refugees, stateless people and other vulnerable groups. To build a safe and secure future for the next generation in the Northern Triangle, the governments of the region must set up a coordinated response to a shared responsibility. The solution is regional, and borders must remain open. There is a window of opportunity now to act and make a real difference, but it will not remain open for long.
Jan Egeland is Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council.