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When migration means fleeing home but not your country

Why We Wrote This

In the United States and Europe, we sometimes talk about migrants as if they simply woke up and decided to travel to our doorstep. But often migration across borders is a last resort. Part 3 of On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Maritza (right) stands with her daughter at an NGO helping internally displaced people in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Sept. 10, 2018. Maritza and her family have been victimized by gang violence and are covering their faces for safety.

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In a nation where only 4 in 100 homicides are solved, Ana says it’s safer not to report crimes to the police – including her brother’s murder. He was a bus driver’s assistant, collecting fares. But when the fleet’s owners resisted handing over an extortion payment, he became a victim of Honduras’s widespread gang violence – and soon his family started getting threats, too. It’s the kind of danger that drives hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to leave their homes every year. But what’s often overlooked in US debates about migration is that trekking north is often migrants’ last choice. Most desperately search for safety in other towns and cities within their home country, and crossing the border is a last resort. In 2017, more than 430,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras became internally displaced people, or IDPs. But most researchers agree that IDPs are severely underreported, with far-reaching implications. The more officials and NGOs can understand the factors causing people to flee, the higher the chances they can help them safely stay. One common factor: creating better jobs and schools so gang activity or trafficking don’t look like the only available futures.

The couple who sought an investigation into their son’s murder. A woman who received grim warnings after bringing her grandchildren to their mother’s funeral. A family torn apart by brothers’ attempts to avoid gang recruitment.

Like tens of thousands of other Hondurans, these families faced threats so pressing that they felt forced to uproot and find new homes. Each got tangled in the web of unwritten rules for survival here, such as keeping silent about crimes, in a nation rife with gangs, trafficking networks, and police corruption.

It’s a maze of risks that can sometimes lead people to the United States. But what’s often overlooked in US conversations around migration is that trekking north is rarely a migrant’s first choice. Most desperately search for safety in their own country.

“My [teenage] children all sleep in my bed with me now,” says Maritza, whose partner and two eldest sons were killed in the span of three years by gang violence. (Like the other displaced people in this story, she requested to use a pseudonym for her family’s safety.) She sent her youngest son, a teen, to live with relatives two hours away, and is seeking relocation assistance from an international NGO. Her kids have dropped out of school and a family friend does their grocery shopping. “We barely leave the house,” she says.

Maritza is on her way to becoming an internally displaced person (IDP): someone who is forced to flee her home, but remains within her country’s borders. Within the Northern Triangle – a region made up of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – an estimated 432,000 people became IDPs in 2017, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

What tends to get attention in the US, on the other hand, are numbers about cross-border migration: Some 163,000 immigrants from the Northern Triangle were halted at the US border in 2017. Another 82,000 were repatriated from Mexico to Central America the same year. Asylum applications from people fleeing the region are reaching new heights in both Mexico and the US, with 45 percent of asylum requests in Mexico in the first half of 2018 coming from Hondurans.

Violence, gang recruitment, and poverty feed the growing numbers of IDPs and migrants alike, experts say. In Honduras alone, at least 174,000 people became IDPs between 2004 and 2014, according to an estimate by the United Nations and the Honduran government.

Most everyone agrees the statistics on IDPs here are severely underreported, which can affect everything from education to employment to international migration. The more precisely researchers and officials can track the phenomenon, and understand causes unique to each community, the higher the chances they can prevent displacement – and possible migration – in the first place. There are also deeper-seated issues that need addressing, like job creation and improving graduation rates, so gangs don’t seem like one of few economic opportunities in so many Honduras neighborhoods and towns.

“Many Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, they love their countries. If they could go somewhere else at home they would,” says Elizabeth Kennedy, a prominent researcher in Central America who has spent the past five years studying motivations for migration in Honduras and El Salvador. She estimates that 90 percent of the people she’s interviewed in Honduras try to move somewhere else at home before looking beyond their national borders.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Ana sits with her daughter as she waits for her own mother to arrive at the Attention Center for Returned Migrants in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Sept. 11, 2018. After fleeing violence in Honduras, Ana's mother was picked up in the United States and deported back to Honduras.

'Honduras is different'

In a nation where only 4 in 100 homicides are solved, Ana says it’s safer not to report crimes to the police. Including her brother’s murder.

“My mom didn’t want to make a report, but [the police] saw her screaming and knew she was his mother,” she says, remembering his lifeless body outside the bus where he worked as the driver’s assistant, collecting fares.

The family was told the fleet’s owners had resisted an extortion attempt – and the murder was a message that the payments weren’t optional. Soon after, the family started getting threats. When they uprooted to a new home about 15 minutes away, they didn’t tell anyone: neighbors, relatives, and least of all the government. When they feared ties between criminal groups in their new and old neighborhoods, the family tried to move again, and her mother eventually decided to migrate to the US.

IDPs’ “options are limited: to stay or keep moving to new places where there is [further] risk that they will face the same high-risk factors again and again,” says Luca Guanziroli, a protection officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Honduras.

“People fear talking about what’s going on, which limits the help [the government and NGOs] can give,” says Evlin Chacon, a project manager at World Vision Honduras, who works with IDP cases. “People move on their own.… They have no support, no network for finding work or getting their children into school, which makes them even more vulnerable.”

In Honduras, forced internal displacement is driven mainly by violence, including organized crime and gender-based violence. It is also propelled by land conflicts or mega-projects, and human rights violations, according to a 2017 report by Honduras’ National Human Rights Commission. Gang recruitment is a central reason for displacement.

In countries with more high-profile conflicts and IDP populations, like Sudan or Colombia, “an entire village moves,” says Mr. Guanziroli. “Honduras is different.

“It’s mainly urban and small-scale movement. One or two families one day, then nothing. There’s no specific communities of origin or of destination,” which makes identifying and responding to IDPs particularly challenging.

Sister Joana Da Silva directs the Attention Center for Returned Migrants, at the edge of the airport in San Pedro Sula, which offers services to people deported home from the US. Then they board taxis and buses that take them back to the communities they originally left, which many find more terrifying than the migrant trail north.

The fact that so many people see migrating to the US – with all the risks of violence, extortion, or death that journey entails – as their best option reflects the realities of Honduras today, Sister Da Silva says.

“Some turn right around and try again,” she says. “People are more aware of the risks of migration today. But the nature of migrants [and refugees] is to never lose hope.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Honduran deportees wait for transportation outside the Attention Center for Returned Migrants in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Sept. 11, 2018. At the center, people deported from the United States receive services and are sent back to the communities they originally left.

Building community

Awareness of the IDP crisis has increased in Honduras in recent years, but clear-cut solutions are rare. As the government focuses on “Iron Fist” punishments for crime, many nongovernmental and multinational organizations try to short-circuit the cycle of gang recruitment. That could mean a safe space for young people to hang out, build a sense of community, get job training, or take GED and English courses.

Although Honduras is often described as having generalized violence, so far-reaching that it essentially touches people indiscriminately, it’s the quieter, targeted threats – like the extortion of elementary school students and teachers, or gang-imposed curfews – that make living here so tough.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Children play on the grounds of a school in San Miguel, Honduras on Sept. 13, 2018. The neighborhood has been plagued by gang violence.

Earlier this year, an elementary and middle school near the mountainous neighborhoods of San Miguel, Tegucigalpa, was shuttered for nearly two weeks due to a bomb threat. Locals whisper that a school security guard didn’t let a gang member hang around collecting weekly extortion payments. The bomb threat was in retaliation.

Fourteen-year-old Pamela says the situation was terrifying – but not because of the risk of violence. “I thought they were going to close down my school forever,” she says.

Pamela sits inside a small community center on a green- and brown-splotched yard in San Miguel. Funded in part by Save the Children and UNHCR, it offers weekend classes and daily activities for youth like Pamela and her cousins. They gather every Saturday for foosball tournaments or to play on the rusted jungle gym.

UNHCR has opened 12 similar centers in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula since 2016. The hope is that interventions tailored to each community can deter the next generation of gang or drug-trafficking recruits, and offer opportunities to stave off displacement or migration.

Sloane, a young single mother, volunteers in the bookstore here. Until recently, her family lived about 20 minutes away, unable to enter or exit their neighborhood after 8 p.m. due to gang-imposed curfews.

“I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t find work. Everywhere I looked, it was a dead end.... No one explicitly told us to get out, but we were forced all the same,” Sloane says of moving.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Sloane, a single mother, sits on a swing set outside a community building in San Miguel, Honduras on Sept. 13, 2018. The community center is funded in part by Save the Children and UNHCR, and Sloane volunteers in its bookstore.

Many of the same problems exist in her new neighborhood. But she’s found a glimmer of hope taking English courses and finishing up her high school degree. She’s put aside plans to migrate to the US, and dreams of working in tourism; of setting an example for her son.

“It might sound like nothing, a place to gather or learn,” she says of the community center. “But if kids get good information, if they feel part of the community, maybe it could all be different one day.”

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