Poor security drives Honduras emigration

Poor security drives Honduras emigration

A variety of domestic factors, including a lack of security and economic opportunity, are driving steady emigration out of Honduras. Conclusions drawn from the author’s research work on the ground illustrate this reality.

As the dusty white bus screeched to a halt on the road leading away from the Guatemalan border, stragglers from the sidelines slowly gathered around it to witness the unloading. Men and a few women—almost all young but a few appearing to be in their fifties—stumbled off, carrying backpacks and raggedy suitcases. They bore the physical exhaustion of a fifteen-hour trip from Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Some 900 Honduran migrants are returned from Mexico in this manner each week, according to Honduran Red Cross volunteers. They are the face of Mexico’s stepped-up border security campaign prompted in no small part by U.S. government pressure. When the issue of unaccompanied minors traveling north hit international consciousness this summer, the border crossing at Corinto became a prime example of the ramped-up response. The other Honduran return point, at San Pedro Sula Airport, is reserved for adult deportees returning from the U.S. on chartered flights operating four times a week.

Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America, and 63% of its population lives in poverty—40% in extreme poverty. Paradoxically, its average minimum salary across sectors—$350 per month—is the second highest in the region, behind only Costa Rica. Despite the setbacks inflicted by the 2009 coup d’état, encouraging developments on the political front include largely positive consensus toward the recently-elected President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Hernandez’s consolidation of government functions across fewer ministries in a bid to save money, the creation of ‘model cities‘ resembling free trade zones and even the First Lady’s personal interest in the issue of migration have earned the administration good marks.

Yet the country is struggling with deep and intractable problems that have given rise to the highest levels of illegal migration among the four ‘sending’ countries which include El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Recent (and as of yet unpublished) findings from interviews of Honduran migrants and their families indicated that the majority of them—upwards of 90%—recognized the high risk inherent to illegal migration yet believed that it represented the best chance they had for improving their lives.

By all accounts, a huge contributing factor to the malaise is the country’s astonishing level of violence. At last count in 2012, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world, at 90.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Among the community leaders, civil society members, government employees and migrants we spoke with, all cited violence as an inescapable part of daily life and a major push factor in illegal migration. In areas around San Pedro Sula, which at one point held the unenviable title of most violent city in the world, the police and communities have ceded neighborhoods to violent gangs, who roam, extort and deliver justice in the most perverted sense of the word.

But citing violence as the sole driving force behind illegal (adult and youth) migration would be to underestimate the gravity of the country’s other social and economic problems. No systematic records exist to track motives for which people risk life and limb to make the journey northward, but migratory patterns tend to correlate with broader events. For instance, since 2013, Honduras has suffered massive coffee crop losses and drought which have put some 500,000 people at risk. This has increased flows of people moving from the countryside to the cities in the hopes of finding better employment prospects.

Honduran cities, already struggling with providing public services like garbage removal, public security and educational opportunity, are ill-equipped to provide for an influx of rural migrants. They are also particularly vulnerable to economic jolts, as when the formidable maquiladora industry that for so long found low overhead costs and a bountiful labor pool in Honduras increasingly looks for better profit margins in neighboring Nicaragua.

Other factors that squeeze people out of Honduras and into the arms of waiting coyotes, known to charge up to $10,000 for a guided journey north, include family reunification—especially for children with U.S.-based parents and relatives—family abuse and gender inequities that make women and girls especially vulnerable to sex and organ trafficking. The recent brutal murder of Miss Honduras and her sister at the hands of the latter’s boyfriend days before she was to represent Honduras at the Miss World contest in London is just the latest high-profile representation of the violence and vulnerabilities Honduran women face.

As colleagues and I mingled among weary bus passengers, we heard a cross-section of stories that reflected circumstances that prompted each person to make the journey north. There was a husband travelling with his pregnant wife and two toddler daughters who wanted more out of life than the coal mines of his hometown could offer; there was a woman looking to escape death threats she and her young nephews faced in San Pedro Sula; there were two twenty-something cousins that needed money to support their families; and there was a pregnant woman traveling with her husband to reunite with family in Miami.

The coyotes, ever-savvy and wildly profitable, now offer up to three chances for a shot at a crossing and 50% of the returnees take them up on that offer and head back out in the matter of days or weeks. Until the state of Honduras provides a more enticing reason to stay, the coyotes will continue to prevail.

Categories: Latin America, Security

About Author

Sanja Davidovic

Sanja is an international development professional whose research and writing focuses on issues of political economy of conflict, state building and security sector reform. She holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Fairfield University.