Forced migration in Central America: The causes of ‘caravans’ and Canada’s response to a regional crisis

March 12, 2019

States in the North of Central America (NCA)– El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – are characterized by endemic poverty, corruption, gang violence, criminality, sexual-identity and gender-based violence, and weak or repressive states.

The situation has given rise to a major displacement crisis. The region saw a tenfold increase in refugees and asylum-seekers from 2011 to 2016. Over 350,000 people claimed asylum globally from 2011 and 2017, with 130,500 in 2017 alone. Most made claims in Mexico and the US, but an increasing number sought refuge in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama. In the first two months of 2019 alone, almost 8000 refugee claims were made in Mexico; the majority from Honduras and El Salvador.

Women, families, and unaccompanied minors are over-represented in displaced populations. Internal displacement is likewise significant. The region has the world’s most urbanized displaced population, with roughly 95% living in urban areas, making traditional, camp-based humanitarian assistance challenging. 

Regional displacement has international implications. Between 400,000 and 500,000 NCA nationals cross irregularly into Mexico annually, most attempting to reach the US. Mexico has become a country of destination, and the new Mexican government has quickly put in place reception measures and enhanced access to the labour market for refugees. 

To manage large displacements, states need to apply a comprehensive regional approach. UNHCR is supporting a state-led process known as the MIRPS – the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework – which seeks to promote mechanisms of responsibility-sharing for the prevention, protection and solutions of displaced populations.

This panel offered an in-depth analysis of the situation at that time, examined the policies of the government in Mexico, and asked what Canada could do to assist host states and displaced people.


  • Patricia Landolt (discussant) Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto

  • Arnau Baulenas Bardia human rights lawyer at the Instituto de Direchos Humanos Universidad Centroamericano, San Salvador, El Salvador

  • Jean-Nicolas Beuze UNHCR Representative in Canada

  • Carol Girón Regional Coordinator of Policies and Programming, Scalabrini International Migration Network, Guatemala City, Guatemala