In July 2014, at the peak of the Central American migration crisis in the U.S., officials in Mexico announced a plan to stem the tide of illegal entries on the country’s porous southern border with Guatemala. Dubbed Programa Frontera Sur, the new policy was partly responsible for a dramatic drop in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S.
But Frontera Sur didn’t stop people from fleeing violence in Central America’s troubled “northern triangle” region of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It just made them look for new options.
While some are finding ever more creative ways of bypassing Mexican immigration officials on their journey north, increasing numbers of men, women and children from the region have turned their attentions south, to the relative calm of places like Panama, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Amid the violence, many are applying for official recognition as refugees.
According to figures from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the number of asylum seekers from the northern triangle to southern Central America more than tripled from 2013 to 2015. In the first half of 2015 alone, Costa Rica received 713 asylum requests from northern triangle citizens, compared with just 391 in all of 2014.
But the UNHCR’s figures do not account for the many undocumented citizens flowing into those countries. “Refugees tend to hide themselves,” Karina Sarmiento, the director of Asylum Access Latin America, told AQ. That makes it difficult to identify them and can put them at risk of being exploited, she says. “Not all Salvadorans that arrive to Panama [are aware] that they have a right to seek asylum and that they might have a case.”
Meanwhile, the influx shows few signs of abating as murder rates in the northern triangle climb; the region experienced an 11 percent increase in homicides – 17,000 murders – in 2015. In response to the violence, global asylum requests from northern triangle countries jumped from 29,024 in 2014 to 26,161 in just the first half of 2015, the latest period for which official figures are available.
While the majority of Central American migrants and refugees still look first to the U.S. for sanctuary, an ongoing immigration crackdown and accounts of corrupt officials, theft and sexual violence on northbound travel routes could make the prospect of a journey south more appealing – or at least less harrowing.
The marked increase in arrivals is already putting a strain on immigration systems in southern Central America, according to Fernando Protti-Alvarado, the UNCHR’s regional representative for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
“Even if these countries have the willingness to receive people, the systems they have are not prepared to deal with huge numbers,” Protti-Alvarado told AQ. “They are not facing a boiling crisis, but they are facing a simmering one.”
Policymakers, both in the U.S. and in southern Central America, appear to be responding. The U.S. recently announced that it will accept more refugees from Central America, though officials have not yet specified how many will be admitted, or when this increase will occur.
And a UN-backed plan developed with the U.S. reportedly includes the opening of processing centers in nearby countries – including Costa Rica – to more effectively screen and process refugees fleeing violence in the northern triangle. Though the details are still being negotiated, if this plan can be implemented effectively, it will come not a moment too soon.
“Refugees and asylum-seekers will continue to come [to southern Central America],” says Protti-Alvarado. “There will be a point in which the system is so saturated that it will collapse, and it’s important to take corrective measures before it happens.”