This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform.

While the public’s focus has understandably been on family separations and irregular Central American migration at the United States-Mexico border, there is growing evidence that many—possibly hundreds of thousands—of Central Americans from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have experienced forced internal displacement within their countries of origin prior to emigrating.

The predominant narrative in the United States, argue the authors of The Hidden Problem of Forced Internal Displacement in Central America, is that Central Americans are driven from their homes by the violence and flee northward in search of refuge. While partly true, a new report from El Salvador, the source of the largest number of migrants apprehended at the US border, suggests that many Salvadorans forced to flee their homes because of violence first seek shelter in their own country before they seek refuge abroad.

In the report “Visibilizar Lo Invisible” (“Making the Invisible Visible”), Salvadoran human rights organization Cristosal uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to explain the larger context of violence in El Salvador, to characterize forced internal displacement, and to describe legal and humanitarian interventions the organization undertook in 2017.

Humanitarian crisis

The report outlines a humanitarian crisis distinct from those produced by traditional internal armed conflicts or natural disasters, emphasizing the high levels of criminality and inadequate government response that have resulted in increased internal displacement.

One of the most valuable contributions of this report is its combination of existing data from official sources (the El Salvadoran government, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, etc) with new data Cristosal and partner organization Fundación Quetzalcóatl collected directly from internally displaced persons. While the report’s findings cannot be generalized to the entire country, according to Cristosal, the new data points shed light on the phenomenon and suggest possible policy responses.

Among the report’s major findings:

  • The number of homes in El Salvador with at least one displaced person has increased from 2.1% in 2012 to 5.1% in 2017, with approximately 273,036 people displaced in total.
  • Forced displacement has not declined at the same rate as homicides in El Salvador. One simple explanation might be that displacement is also provoked by lesser crimes such as extortion, threats, and assaults including sexual assaults and rape.
  • 96.2% of the time, displaced people cited gangs as the reason for abandoning their homes. Yet government institutions like the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil or PNC) and the Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas de El Salvador or FAES) also reportedly contributed to forced internal displacement in 15.1% of cases:
  • Extortions and homicides contributing to forced displacement, though often gang-related, are also occasionally attributed to the PNC as in the graph below:
  • 42% of the 675 displaced people receiving services from Cristosal reported their displacement to a public institution. Overall the number may be lower, near 30%, as reported by the Salvadoran Ministry of Justice and Public Security. Those who chose not to report the crime did so for various reasons, including lack of trust in public institutions, but the majority (68.2%) did not report their displacement due to fear of repercussions from the perpetrators who had driven them from their homes.
  • The displaced population is mainly young and economically dependent. Among those who came into contact with Cristosal and Fundación Quetzalcóatl, the majority of both women (51.5%) and men (61.6%) were between 0 and 25 years of age.Bullet 93% of victims of forced displacement saw abandoning El Salvador as their only option, but only 10.3% had done so.

Cristosal’s report aims to raise awareness of forced internal displacement and urges the Salvadoran government to acknowledge the urgent need to design effective responses.

El Salvador’s government has referred to “movilidad interna” (internal mobility) rather than internal displacement, thus framing the phenomenon as a choice. According to the Cristosal report, the government has described internal mobility as infrequent and temporary in nature, suggesting that those affected will soon move back home or leave El Salvador en route to the US.

On July 13, 2018, El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice acknowledged that “there exists in El Salvador a phenomenon of forced displacement.” The Court ruled that the country’s executive and legislative branches must recognize this fact and work both to prevent displacement and to protect those already displaced.

This ruling came in response to complaints filed by eight Salvadoran families forced to abandon their homes by criminal groups. One family was threatened and beaten by Barrio 18 gang members, and told to leave or be killed. Another family left because of gang-related extortion backed by death threats. The families’ grievances resemble an asylum application common among Central Americans arriving in the US. The difference in this case is that the families did not flee to the US, or at least not initially, but to another part of El Salvador.

Cristosal’s report is important in this context for a number of reasons.

First, it reminds us that Central Americans arriving at the US–Mexico border may well have experienced internal displacement before leaving their home countries.

Second, in the case of El Salvador, but likely in Honduras as well, the government is not doing enough to meet the needs of internally displaced persons in part because they are reluctant to acknowledge the problem.

Finally, one way to reduce Central American migration to Mexico and the United States would be to develop effective responses to prevent further internal displacement; and where displacement has already occurred, provide the services people need to be able to remain in their country of origin. The crisis of internal forced displacement needs immediate attention from the Northern Triangle governments – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – the United States, and Mexico, as well as from the wider international community.