Central America Migration Crisis: Facts and How to Help

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The Central America Migration Crisis


The Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are among the world’s most dangerous countries. At 90 for every 100,000 people, the homicide rate is nearly five times what the World Health Organization considers an “epidemic.” People face an insurmountable level of violence, insecurity and lack of economic opportunities. “Join-or-die” gang recruitment policies make life nearly impossible for innocent youth in gang-controlled areas. Business owners face extortion and threats from gangs while corrupt and inadequate policing fails to protect them.

Dealing with Drought

Meanwhile, five years of recurring droughts across the Dry Corridor that runs through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have destroyed corn and bean harvests, the mainstay of the Central American diet. Meanwhile, farming practices like incorrect fertilization and burning and deforestation of hillsides are depleting the land and threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers who depend on seasonal rainfall to grow the food that feeds their families. During the last extreme drought of 2018, 2.2 million farmers in the Dry Corridor suffered crop losses, leaving 1.4 million people without an adequate amount of food. 

Fleeing North

Struggling with rampant violence, chronic poverty, and failed harvests due to environmental degradation and climate change, entire families have made the difficult decision to leave their homes and flee north. In October 2018, multiple migrant caravans set off from Hondurans and other Central American countries—comprising about 10,000 people in total—with the intention of reaching the United States in search of asylum and a dignified life. Since then, tens of thousands more people have made the dangerous trek north, through Mexico, an exodus that highlights the need to address the violence, poverty and other root causes of this humanitarian emergency.


Migrant shelters along the route from Guatemala through Mexico have been in a perpetual state of emergency since the first caravan made its way to the United States in 2018. The context of COVID-19 has only heightened their vulnerabilities. In March, many of Mexico's migrant shelters closed their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but continue to host the people who were already there, even if for much longer than planned. Due to new legal restrictions, migrants seeking U.S. asylum face lengthy, delayed processing in Mexico, where they await word in dangerous border cities. Tens of thousands are stuck in limbo, many without safe shelter, and highly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and contagion.

In Central America, the virus is leading to massive disruptions to the livelihoods, safety and social cohesion of those already in extremely tenuous circumstances - threatening their limited access to food and education, and their ability to work. The pandemic is increasing the risk of extreme hunger in Central America, a region already experiencing rising fod prices and supply chain distruptions. It is restricting people from planting and harvesting crops, working as day laborers and selling produts. This means less food for people already living on the edge.


Robyn Fieser

Marketing Manager

Latin America and the Caribbean

[email protected]


Robyn Fieser

What Makes People Leave?


The youth homicide rate is 5 times what WHO considers an epidemic


Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are among the 8 poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere


2.2 million people in Central America lost crops during the 2018 drought

6 Facts about Refugees and Migrants


CRS Response to the Central America Migration Crisis

Our primary approach to the migration crisis in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is to address the root causes of violence, poverty and drought that are pushing people to leave their homes and countries in the first place. Our experts are working with local, national, and international governments and organizations to find solutions to those causes, which now include adaptations to address the realities of COVID-19.

Violence in Central America

We believe young people in even the poorest, most violent neighborhoods have the power to change their lives and communities. With transformational vocational training and education programs, youth will stay, thrive and transform their communities. 

Our youth programming takes a holistic approach, engaging communities, local partners and governments to help at-risk youth in Central America realize their full potential. 

Based on a model developed in Harlem, New York, in the late 1970s, CRS’ YouthBuild project provides concrete opportunities for employment, education and leadership to young people, ages 16 to 25, who are out of school or unemployed.

Since 2009, we have graduated nearly 10,000 students. We’ve worked with 400-plus businesses to provide jobs to youth. 

Learn more about our YouthBuild programs in Latin America.

Poverty in Central America

Poverty is one of the main "push factors" that forces people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to leave their countries. What we're doing to encourage people to stay:

  • We provide daily school meals to children through the McGovern‐Dole Food for Education Program. In Honduras alone we feed about 52,000 students a year.
  • We provide “cash‐for‐work” opportunities as a source of income.
  • Because families depend on livestock and crops to earn an income, we host livestock and seed fairs to help families get the resources they need to earn a living. We’re also providing vaccination services and veterinary care for their animals.

Drought in Central America

Erratic rainfall patterns, rising temperatures and recurrent drought are threatening the livelihoods of farmers in Central America who depend on seasonal rainfall. At the same time, an estimated 80% of farmland in the region suffers from soil degradation. Only by working with farmers to revitalize their land and adapt to the region’s increasingly extreme and variable climate can we help cultivate a prosperous future for rural communities.  

Here’s what we’re doing to alleviate drought in Central America:

  • CRS’ Water‐Smart Agriculture project is working with some 3,000 farmers in the region to revitalize agricultural production, create resilience to drought, and restore soil and water resources.
  • We’re training farmers how to use the right fertilizer, in the right amount, at the right time, in the right place.
  • We’re working with farmers to keep their cops covered to protect soil and add nitrogen and biomass that improve soil fertility and help it capture and store more rainfall.
  • We’re helping farm families integrate agroforestry and other new crops into their farming for more diverse household consumption and income.   

Learn more about CRS’ Water Smart Agriculture in Latin America.


In addition to addressing the root causes of the migration crisis, we also provide assistance to shelters for migrants. With support from the Church and community volunteers, local shelters have, for years, offered migrants a place to sleep, eat and recieve medical care and other services. But these shelters were established to support migrants for short periods. Due to the quarantine and delayed asylum process brought on by the pandemic, they are having to provide long-term accommodations. Many shelters are ill-equipped to handle the increased demand and understand how to protect migrants during this rapidly changing emergency.

CRS has provided these shelter partners with vital resources, including food and hygiene supplies, and repairs and improvements of facilities. CRS is also coordinating with Caritas Mexico to host webinars for shelter staff and leadership to address diverse challenges, and have access to clear, concise and accurate information.


How does foreign aid help stem migration?

According to the July 2019 report from the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition Fact Sheet “Central America and U.S. Assistance,” U.S. assistance programs in the Northern Triangle promote security and economic development by combating violence, strengthening community programs for youth, promoting economic and agricultural development, and fighting corruption.

Non-profit and civil society organizations with programs that support economic development and capacity building receive the vast majority of U.S. assistance. Central American governments programs are mostly focused on strengthening law enforcement and security.

There has been a nearly 20% decrease in U.S. assistance to Central America since 2016. Assistance to the Northern Triangle is just 0.035% of the current federal budget.

Foreign aid is supporting vital work that tackles the violence in Central America driving youth to leave their homes while providing security and opportunity to thousands of families in Central America. The US government funded a $13-million program in Honduras and El Salvador that provides job training and employment services to some 5,100-low-income youth living in violent and crime-ridden communities. The program, called Youth Pathways-Central America, is part of the YouthBuild International network, and combines basic education with technical skills, self-esteem workshops and community service, and works with private-sector companies and regional governments to provide seed capital to create employment alternatives in the limited job market. For positive, long-term change, we need to scale up our efforts —there are more than 250,000 youth in Central America currently out of school or unemployed.

How does the current number of people crossing the southern U.S. border compare to previous years?

There was a spike in people apprehended at the border in October and November of 2018, but overall crossings are much lower than their peak in 2000. The makeup of the people crossing the border is also different, with many more women and children trying to enter the United States. It’s important to note that most of the people crossing the border now are seeking asylum.

What does it mean when someone claims asylum?

If you are fleeing violence and persecution, you have the right to claim asylum in another country. The immigration court system in the U.S. hears asylum cases and decides whether individuals qualify under U.S. law. Most of the people coming from Central America are seeking protection but it’s unlikely they will be granted asylum. Only about 22% of applicants ultimately receive asylum status. However, asylum is a provision of international law that was created in cooperation with US leadership. Asylum claims provide the very necessary function of protecting people who are seeking to escape devastating conditions in their home countries.

The U.S. has increased restrictions along the southern border, so why do people continue to attempt to come to the United States?

People fleeing Central American countries do so more because of what’s happening in their home country than what is happening in the United States. With continued violence and poor economic conditions, those fleeing often believe it is their only choice. The decision to leave the country is often made when all other options are exhausted.

Who is migrating?

In previous years, the principal migrant profile was a young man, but these recent waves of migrants have differing profiles including women, unaccompanied minors, and LGBTQ people, populations that are particularly vulnerable to forms of violence and political instability that exist in their origin countries. During the first four months of 2019, thousands of people began their journey in new caravans that included people not only from the Northern Triangle, but also included Cubans and extra-regional migrants.

Why are people from Central America applying for asylum?

People from Central America are applying for asylum on the basis that they are fleeing violence, poverty, and crippling drought. The youth homicide rate in the Northern Triangle is 5 times what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers to be an epidemic. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, drought is leaving farmers and their families in Central America without enough food. In Honduras alone, about 327,000 people are affected by drought.

Where are migrants waiting for their asylum process?

The struggle is not over for migrants once they reach the US border. The process to apply for asylum can be lengthy and difficult. Migrants sometimes wait up to 50 to 60 days before they can even get an appointment to begin the asylum process in border towns such as Tijuana. Tijuana is one of the most crowded legal and illegal crossing points on the US- Mexican Border and one of the 13 habilitated deportation hotspots established by the Mexican Government. Tijuana was selected as the preferred entry point for the first caravan, as increasing violence was reported at other border crossings, and Tijuana offered a better organized US immigration system for those requesting asylum or refugee status. Therefore, more than 5,000 migrants arrived in Tijuana in November 2018 and many others have followed since then. Lack of shelter and accurate information about legal options has created a crisis at the US/Mexican border.

For those who attempt to cross the border illegally, the situation is even more dire. Those caught crossing illegally face detention in overcrowded facilities followed by eventual deportation, along with losing the ability to ever immigrate to the US legally.

How is Catholic Relief Services helping in the Central America migrant crisis?

The Catholic Church has played a critical role in supporting migrants throughout the humanitarian emergency, providing shelter, food, protection, medical and psychological support to more than 8,000 people at different stations across the corridor. The Coalicion Pro Defensa del Migrante (COALIPRO) is a shelter network founded in 1996 which is comprised of Catholic and Christian Churches and has years of advocacy experience providing humanitarian assistance and legal support to different flows of migrants arriving in northern Baja California. To date, CRS has provided financial contributions to  COALIPRO and the Missionaries of Resurrected Christ (Misioneras de Cristo Resucitado MCR) and to the Jesuit Migrant service to support migrants traveling with the first Caravan in October-November 2018.

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