Addressing the Needs of Central American Asylum Seekers and Vulnerable Migrants

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Daniel F. Runde: I’m Dan Runde, I’m a senior vice president here at CSIS. We’ve got a great panel ahead. This is a really pressing topic which is on irregular Central American migration. And I’m really grateful that my colleague Jake Kurtzer has asked me to make some opening remarks today. This is a topic very close to my heart. We’re focusing primarily on the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Endemic corruption and impunity, a lack of economic opportunity deepened by pandemic restrictions, and chronic violence fueled by the presence of transnational crime all reinforce each other to create heightened push factors.

For me, the magic number is 8,000. When a country hits $8,000 per capita, people largely start migrating – stop migrating. On the way up to 8,000, there’s more migration, but once you hit about $8,000 people stop migrating. The long-term solution to irregular Central American migration is development, and a sense of security in those societies, and functioning political systems, and a reduction in drug-financed gang violence.

According to UNHCR, in 2020 alone there were 500,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle countries who sought refuge in neighboring countries, while more than 300,000 were internally displaced inside the region. In the past five years, we have witnessed shifts in the scale and makeup of this migration, one where asylum-seeking families and unaccompanied children increasingly make up the majority. The number of unaccompanied minors in 2021, for example, is already zooming at steep rise, causing the United States to reopen influx facilities.

The migration crisis has likewise impacted Mexico, which the number of Central Americans seeking protections in the country in 2019 being 20 times what it had been just four years prior. Mexico has responded to the crisis by intensifying its migration enforcement and, together with the Northern Triangle governments, coordinating public health measures to curtail migration with negative COVID-19 tests now demanded at borders. This has further pushed migrants toward more perilous transit methods, with COVID-19 restrictions likewise reducing safe shelter space along routes.

We have a really great panel today. We have Kelly Clements, known to many of us. She’s the deputy high commissioner at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Kelly advises and supports UNHCR, including programs that enhance the capacity of refugee receiving countries, support safe shelter networks across Central American and Mexico, and integration of refugees and asylum-seekers into host countries. She brings three decades worth of experience in refugee and displacement issues. She worked at the State Department as the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. She is also an acting deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.

We also have Nancy Izzo Jackson, who serves as senior bureau official for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. Department of State. She’s a career member of the senior executive service and has extensive experience within the State Department, including policy, resource planning, and assistance programs. She began her career at the State Department as a tenured member of the U.S. Foreign Service.

Ralph Merriam is the regional representative for the Northern Triangle at Corus International, a family of nonprofit and for-profit organizations operating health, rural economic development, impact investment, and humanitarian assistance programs in countries with high need. Ralph has worked in a number of management positions and development organizations in multiple Central American countries, including the World Bank, in CARE, and Oxfam.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow in the Project on Prosperity and Development. He works with me here at CSIS. He’s got an extensive background in international development. He’s worked at the Kennedy School, at Harvard. He’s lived and worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. He’s been a major leader at CSIS on issues of migration and forced displacement. He’s looked at this through the lens of climate change as well as conflict-aware stabilization.

But now I want to turn the floor over to my colleague Jake Kurtzer, who’s the director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda Program. Jake, over to you.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks very much, Dan, for that introduction and for your leadership on this issue, and for joining for today. Without further ado, I want to turn it over to our panelists. And I want to start with you, Kelly. Thanks so much for being with us here at CSIS again today. It’s nice to see you.

As UNHCR is well aware, and as Dan discussed in his opening comments, we’ve seen skyrocketing levels of forced displacement in and from Central America, particularly from the Northern Triangle. You know, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing their home every year, spurred by political instability, climate change, and expanding crime. So can you talk to us a little bit about what UNHCR is doing in response to this crisis and what your priorities for the region are in the years ahead?

Kelly Clements: Thank you so much, Jacob. And thanks, Dan. It’s nice to see you, and other friends and colleagues on the screen. And I just first want to thank CSIS for bringing some attention to a part of the world that is sometimes overlooked because there’s a heavy, heavy focus on what’s happening at the border. And so a big shoutout first to CISIS and the project for doing that.

Indeed, as Dan mentioned, we really are seeing unprecedented levels of forced displacement. The socioeconomic instability in north Central America continues to produce both refugees and asylum seekers. And he already gave you the numbers, over half a million and of which then there are an additional 318,000 or so internally displaced in Honduras and in El Salvador. There’s obviously deep and complex regions for this. And it’s an interrelationship between issues related to gang violence, for example, poverty, domestic abuse, food insecurities and, of course, climate and climate change in this part of this world.

And there has been an intensive effort over several years on our part, on UNHCR’s part. And I have to say, with very, very strong support from the U.S. government, and in particular by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, to try to boost the capacity of asylum systems throughout the region, including in places like Guatemala, for example, and Mexico. And I’ll come back to that in just a moment. And we’ve also looked at trying to promote the integration of refugee host communities throughout the programs that we’ve put together.

You mentioned, both Dan and Jacob, in your question – you know, there is a number of ways of doing this. And we’ve done it through a combination of capacity building, but also humanitarian assistance. Putting together, for example, a network of safe spaces for those that are in transit or in places where they’re not safe where they happen to be, community-based protection, cash assistance, for example, until people are able to find some kind of employment, and livelihood support.

So for example, in Guatemala we’ve assisted families in terms of cash assistance and since May really stepped up our approach, particularly in the pandemic. In Honduras, the storms and the impact of those storms have really intensified the need for distribution of core relief items – for example, hygiene kits, food, medical care, and so on. In El Salvador, what we have seen – and in fact, that was my last visit to the region, and that was to look at the law on internal displacement, which is really focused on ways that that kind of support and protection can be provided.

And in Mexico, what’s very interesting, Jacob, is that normally we have seen this as a country of transit to the United States. Really no longer. It’s a – it’s now also a country of asylum and of integration. And what is interesting, and I did get the stats this morning knowing we would have this conversation, in terms of the asylum claims that particularly Hondurans and Cubans have lodged, continues to increase. So for example, in 2014 we really only saw a few thousand. In 2019, 70,000 asylum applications were lodged in Mexico. It dropped a bit in 2020 because of the pandemic, but we’re starting to see the numbers click up again. We had about 6,500 asylum applications in January, and it looks like close to 7,000 – we just closed the books in February and the Mexican authorities have relayed almost 7,000 applications.

So we’re looking to strengthen Mexico’s asylum process and stabilize the situation for both refugees and asylum seekers. And one of the ways that we have done that is through very interesting integration and relocation programs. There’s a project in particular that we call – it’s in Saltillo. And it aims to match private business and employment opportunities with 150 different companies with a relocation program and job placement program – local integration. It has assisted 8,600 asylum seekers to date in the formal economy in Mexico. And we’re aiming to ramp this up in 2021 to 20,000.

What we’ve seen also, Jacob, is a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people, both in north-Central America and those that are in Mexico. We’ve seen a shrinkage in the economies in Latin America, getting back to Dan’s point about the economic roots and issues related to economic stability. It’s shrunk by 8.8 percent in 2021 compared to 4.4 percent for the rest of the world. This is according to the IMF. We’re also trying to find some of those durable solutions that are important, looking at the root causes. And I can talk a little bit further about something called the MIRPS process, which is designed both to – as a state-led process to match protection and solutions for those looking at root causes all the way to those that may be in refugee or asylum-seeker status.

So I’m looking forward to the conversation, and thanks again for organizing us today, Jacob.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Kelly, for that. It’s very comprehensive.

And I was interested you mentioned this program bringing in the business community. As Dan mentioned, Ralph, Corus is a consortium of public and private organizations that are working together. And Kelly concluded by talking about some of the economic factors and addressing some of those economic challenges faced especially by rural communities in Central America. So how do you think – you know, tell us a little bit about your work and how you think working to improve the economic and social conditions in those rural communities can help potentially reduce the push factors. And also, how does that work that you do align with sort of fundamentally maintaining the support for the right for people to migrate if they so choose?

Kelly Clements: Thank you. Thanks very much, Jacob. So –

Jacob Kurtzer: Kelly, this’ll be for Ralph

Kelly Clements: Oh, excuse me. (Laughs.) I was going to keep talking.

Jacob Kurtzer: Yeah. (Laughs.)

Ralph Merriam: (Laughs.) Thanks, Jacob. And, yeah, indeed, I think this – as it was introduced at the beginning of our panel, this is – really comes to the heart of the matter. And just as a little intro, you know, Jacob introduced me as working for Corus. And that is correct. You may all know – be more familiar with Lutheran World Relief, which is part of the family of NGOs and for-profit organizations that have merged together recently to form Corus International.

And you know, this is a huge issue. But in my experience, and having been born and raised here in Honduras, you know, I’ve seen these enormous changes happening. And I’ve spoken to so many returned migrants, potential migrants. And in my travels throughout our program areas, not only in Honduras but also in Guatemala and El Salvador, I have come across a lot of people that would – are really trying to stay and trying to make it happen in a way that they can earn a decent livelihood in the region, and not have to migrate.

Because, you know, if we look at it, most people are migrating not to chase the American dream. They’re trying to escape the nightmare that’s the Northern Triangle. But they would rather stay here with their families and their communities, and the farms they grew up in, and so on. So as it’s already been mentioned, you know, lack of economic opportunity has been the main driver of migration from the rural areas. Therefore, you know, it’s very important to understand the dynamics that are affecting the rural areas. And there are multiple things happening at the same time.

Besides just the overall lack of economic opportunity, we have now aggravating factors such as climate change, which is making it even harder for small farmers – whether it’s in coffee, cocoa, or any other value chain – to be able to make decent living. However, on the other hand, it’s also creating some interesting opportunities. For instance, migration from rural areas is primarily a male – you know, it’s mostly men that are migrating. And this is opening up some very interesting opportunities for young people, especially women.

We have seen that the average age of the small coffee farmer, which is one of the fundamentals of the Honduran rural economy, has been increasing over the years. But combined with the trends in male migration, this is opening some very interesting doors or opportunities for women to take on more dynamic leadership roles in their farms and in their communities. Therefore, empowering and making those opportunities easier to be reached by women is critical. Ensuring access to finance for them is a very important part of this equation.

And to this end, Lutheran World Relief has implemented in the region various initiatives, such as the GAPP project, which is Gender and Agriculture from Police to Practice, which was focused precisely on building the capacity of young women to be able to identify and take advantage of these opportunities that the crisis is generating. It’s also critical to improve the overall investment climate in the region. Honduras still ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in Latin America. And this, combined with other security issues, makes the cost of doing business in Honduras very, very high compared to other countries.

Additionally, we need to be supporting investment in the necessary capacities, from the farm level to central government, in order to be able to address the negative impacts of climate change and rural and agricultural livelihoods. This includes, among other things – as has already been mentioned – improved emergence preparedness and response capacity, but also improved water resource management. This is a critical issue. We’ve seen how prolonged drought, followed by periods of very intense rainfall – 2020 being the most striking example of that – have really wreaked havoc in the region.

So we had crop loss from extended drought. And then when farmers are starting to pick themselves up, in come the double-whammy hurricane and, you know, destroys their – those efforts. And additionally, improved climate-smart agriculture practices and policies at farm level and central government. And I think these are some of the key issues that need to be addressed.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Ralph.

I want to turn to you now, Nancy. We talked, and Dan highlighted and Kelly highlighted, the, you know, extremely high levels of violence that are part of the push factors. And, you know, one of the questions and one of the priorities, I think, for the PRM Bureau is protection, including particularly the protection of children and preventing and responding to gender-based violence. So can you speak a little bit to both the situation, you know, from the U.S. government’s perspective, facing children, women in Central America, and how the displacement crisis affects these groups generally speaking, and how PRM and the U.S. government writ large can respond both to the push factors and then also to the protection needs along the migration route?

Nancy Izzo Jackson: Absolutely. And thank you so much, Jacob. And first, may I just say it’s a pleasure to be here with all of you and to be on stage with the deputy high commissioner. Lovely to see her, and to be with Ralph as well. It’s a privilege to be here and to have an opportunity to talk a little bit about the Biden administration’s plans and priorities in helping to humanely manage migration flows through the region. So really thrilled to be here.

To your question about women and children in particular, and the protection concerns that we see, we are very concerned about high levels of violence, and notwithstanding what Ralph said about opportunities that women may have as we see more men migrate, we are also seeing high levels of violence. And I think, as anybody who follows forced displacement knows, women and children are often at even greater risk in situations of forced displacement. They are oftentimes very vulnerable to sexual abuse, to – (coughs) – excuse me – to gender-based violence, to all kinds of trafficking, et cetera.

And so in Central America, that is also what we’re seeing. We are seeing high levels of violence, especially against women and children, but not only. We’re also seeing that happening against LGBTQI refugees as well, which is another particular group of people that we’re very concerned about in terms of unique protection requirements. And so as we see this violence happening, we’re seeing people flee both internally but then ultimately crossing borders trying to seek safety. And even along that journey, they are still subject to violence, gender-based violence in particular, but also just being preyed upon by smugglers and people who would take advantage of them as they try to move along this route.

And I would say that COVID-19 and the pandemic has actually made it worse. This – what we’ve seen since 2020 with the pandemic is increased levels of gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence and gang-perpetrated violence, largely as a result of government-imposed lockdown measures, which we understand. We had them in the U.S. too for our public safety. But those lockdown measures have enhanced vulnerability of women particularly to domestic violence.

So what are we doing and how are we responding? So first and foremost I would say that, you know, the tremendous partnership we have with UNHCR as well as UNICEF in the region is allowing us to increase humanitarian assistance to meet immediate needs of vulnerable children, women, and families. And we’re doing that across the board, throughout the region, enhancing that immediate humanitarian assistance. We’re also – through these two tremendous partners of ours, we’re helping to build the capacity of the governments in the region to address the needs of families and children as they are on the move.

I would like to just point out, it’s not just immediate humanitarian assistance that we’re providing, but looking institutionally – (coughs) – excuse me – institutionally about how we can strengthen the overall response to women and children globally. And so what we’re doing at PRM is we’re making extra efforts and investing additional resources to ensure that especially vulnerable people at risk of violence and abuse and exploitation are not just beneficiaries of our programs, but they’re actually incorporated in program planning and design. So a very participatory approach to ensure that unique needs that they have are not lost in the response.

We are also requiring that our partners have a gender analysis in their program design to make sure that women and children are adequately represented in those programs. And then every organization that we fund has to have a high-quality code of conduct to prevent against sexual exploitation and abuse. So there’s an immediate response to the needs on the ground, but also looking more institutionally about what we can do to help people in need. And I’ll stop there. Thank you.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks very much, Nancy. I think we’ve gotten a fairly sort of comprehensive view of both the USG’s sort of funding and approach, and various different partners, I mean, the way that these programs are implemented and seek to address some of these factors. But I think I want to turn it back to you, Kelly, now because I think there’s a question on a lot of people’s mind, is with the change of administration with the United States, you know, given what we’ve discussed, climate’s not going away, the violence is not going away, the economic conditions are going to take a very long time to change.

And so I think we’re likely to see displacement. And I think even with all the great work that’s being done in terms of asylum policies, and Mexico, and the countries in the region, people are still likely to migrate to the United States. And so how do you see this? And what do you think this means for the United States’ southern border, and the administration’s plan to be more welcoming to asylum seekers?

Kelly Clements: Thank you, Jacob. I was on a bit of a roll earlier, so sorry to Ralph. (Laughs.)

Jacob Kurtzer: Yeah, sorry about that. But we’re all friends here.

Kelly Clements: You get – you get into a rhythm and you just want to keep going.

Ralph Merriam: No worries. (Laughs.)

Kelly Clements: No, thank you. Thank you, Jacob for the question. Obviously, this is on many people’s minds, including our own. You know, for UNHCR, what we – what we are doing in terms of the support and the engagement with the U.S. government and the new Biden-Harris administration is very similar to what we would be doing anywhere else in the world. It’s looking at a comprehensive approach to how do you care for people.

How do you ensure that – whether refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced, what have you – that you have in place ways that people can be received, that there is a safe and orderly way for those that are seeking international protection to have their claims heard. So, a strong asylum system. And that includes the U.S., in terms of the border and what we’re seeing now, the dynamics. We’ve just had a few minutes to discuss how complicated, complex those are. And that is – that sort of complexity perhaps in a larger magnitude here, but that is the kind of dynamics that we would engage in, in other parts of the globe.

Now, the executive order that the administration put out just recently on the issues related to migration in particular mirror very much UNHCR’s protection priorities. We’re looking at root causes. We just talked about them a little bit. I mentioned and we discussed a little bit the development – the need to make sure you’ve got development, economic, some of the security factors that are firmly in focus in countries of origin. So looking at that in terms of whether it’s a process that we help to facilitate and convene at state level through the MIRPS so that countries – the six plus Mexico – the six Central American countries plus Mexico have a way to engage so it’s not seen as in isolation but it is more comprehensive, to look at the root causes of people’s flight.

Managing some of the flows throughout North and Central America, again, this is a collaboration. This is looking at the structures that you have in place to respond and to protect. Providing for asylum in the United States. And obviously that’s something that the U.S. – and Nancy can talk about this far more in detail than I can – but is in firm focus by this administration. That, for us internationally, would be something that we would be relaying to any country with which we engage.

And the issues that we are working on collaboratively is really the reducing the need – and this gets to Ralph’s point – reducing the need for people to need to flee because they don’t have livelihoods, they are not able to support their families, they’re not able to put their kids in school. It’s some of those factors. But obviously there are going to be reasons for flight from a security standpoint. And people need to be able to – (audio break) – asylum if they are not able to make ends meet where they are.

Now, having a very fair and effective and humane asylum system at the U.S. border is obviously key. And with international standards it’s a key component of this entire approach. You can’t do one piece. You can’t do the development piece, the economic piece, or the humanitarian assistance piece in north Central America without having some kind of an asylum system. And this gets to both the asylum systems that we are growing in the region, but also the United States looking at its own asylum system in terms of strengthening.

I can’t underestimate, Jacob, how much the world is looking at the United States now in terms of how it is handling issues at the border. Now, this is a very regional issue as well, but internationally the strength of our ability on the protection side to engage with others comes back often to actors like the United States. And so the support that we can provide to help, on a technical side, the goal of the U.S. to have a safe, orderly, humane migration system is fundamentally important not just for the United States, not just for the region, but indeed globally.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks for that, Kelly. Very comprehensive. And I think indeed the world looks at the United States in both these issues and asylum and how we treat people that show up at our border, and also in the way that we carry out our programming. And something that you mentioned in your opening comments is one of the, you know, effective programs is I want to ask you, Ralph, a little bit about the use of cash as a social protection. And it’s used by governments and by UNHCR partners quite effectively for some of these vulnerable communities.

So, Ralph, can you talk to us a little bit about your programming with cash, and how cash programming can meet the basic needs of communities? And there’s been a little bit of discourse online recently about some of the challenges with cash, in terms of either fraud or data protection. So how do you work to mitigate those challenges while embracing a response that has actually proven to be really effective to meet the needs of some of these economically challenged communities?

Ralph Merriam: Right. Thanks, Jacob. And that’s a really good question because, you know, there’s – cash has been used significantly more and more. And we’ve been using cash transfers in our responses to both COVID as well as the Eta and Iota emergencies here in Honduras and the rest of the region. And while cash-based program has definitely shown itself to be a dignified and effective way of supporting the poor, it is by no means a one-size-fits-all in every context. And that needs to be taken into account by any organization wanting to implement a cash distribution program.

In addition to, you know, robust – the existence of robust market program design, the use of cash can provide humanitarian assistance. And we should be mindful of the security conditions and safety issues for both the humanitarian staff that’s involved in engaging in this type of programming, as well as the project participants and even the host communities where such distributions take place. Our broader experience has shown us that with proper targeting, community mobilization, community programming, and considering how we live and engage in this digital world, cash often faces an unnecessary uphill battle when it comes to choosing this modality over traditional, you know, commodity-based programming.

Nevertheless, the NGO community has collected substantial evidence that where possible and feasible, you know, this kind of digital cash distribution is often the most dignified method, especially for populations on the move, of providing this humanitarian assistance as it is discreet. You know, it’s not as visible as a food ration. It does not require complex distribution logistics. And you know, in the case of theft or fraud, it can also be cancelled, revoked, and resent.

So to summarize, I would say that under conditions of proper targeting, community acceptance, involving of the local NGOs and the other organizations at the very local community level – those organizations that are able to do sort of the last mile engagement – and paired with more comprehensive programming options, cash, I would say, and this organization would say, this is still a very dignified – or, the most dignified and effective way of delivering assistance to those people on the move, especially as multipurpose cash meets a very wide range of needs. From food, to health, to transportation, and all the myriad of different needs and requirements that people on the move often have and that cannot – you know, it’s not as easy to set up a structured commodity-based distribution program when people are always, you know, moving from one place to the next on a daily basis.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Ralph. These are all great points, and I think cash, you know, incorporated into a comprehensive strategy and a comprehensive approach, is really one innovative tool that’s grown exponentially, and I think has a real opportunity to do some of this transformation that people talk about.

So I want to come back to you now, Nancy. You know, Kelly talked a little bit about having a comprehensive regional approach. And so putting that question to you, right, how does the State Department and the Biden administration look at what a comprehensive, regional approach to Central America, refugee migration, asylum seeking – asylum seekers look like? What are some of the concrete elements that that kind of coordinated approach could have?

Nancy Izzo Jackson: Thanks a lot, Jacob. And happy to say that so much of what I’m about to say I think will echo what Kelly has already said about what UNHCR is doing in the region. And I think it’s just testament to the strong partnership that we have with UNHCR in terms of how do we address in a much more humane way managing the mixed flow of refugees and migrants that we see through the region? And I would start out to say that we recognize that how we do that as a region is – every country has a responsibility to do that, to humanely manage migration, to allow people fleeing persecution to find safety, to be able to claim asylum.

And so how do we collectively manage that flow? And I would – and I would say that the Biden administration has made very clear that from the outset they – we want to be a reliable partner in the region for all of those elements. And so what you’ve seen already in the first month has been a series of executive orders that has tried to put in place responses to all elements of this crisis, from – everywhere from providing greater access to asylum in the United States, to providing safety and security along the route and in countries transiting, as well as providing immediate humanitarian assistance to those in need. And then also really looking, to get back to Dan’s point from the very beginning, how do you address the root causes of these flows?

And so I will start with kind of the last – the first thing I said, which is increasing access to asylum and playing a role, and the U.S. stepping up and playing its role in a regional response there. So what you’ve seen already is we have started with the process of unwinding what is the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as MPP or the Remain in Mexico Policy of the previous administration. We’ve also suspended and initiated the process to terminate asylum cooperation agreements with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. All of these are first steps towards a greater partnership in the region, in humanely managing migration, and improving access to asylum here in the United States. And so all of that is already underway.

I would say the next thing that we look at is how do we improve protection in the region, even before people get to the U.S. border. And that gets very much to the things that Kelly described in her opening remarks about building asylum capacity in the region. We’re very happy to be strong supporters of UNHCR’s work in building out asylum capacity throughout the region so that people can find safety along the route as well. I would say a big piece of finding safety and protection is not juts asylum, but also refugee resettlement.

And so another element of the Biden administration’s executive orders that came out over the last few weeks was a real focus on how do we build back and expand the U.S. refugee admissions program in the United States, so that people who are fleeing persecution if they can’t find safety in the region don’t have to come to the border to get it, but can find safety through resettlement in the region. And so that’s another big pillar or workstream for us, as we look to enhance protection.

As we build on protection, we are also enhancing, as I said previously, our humanitarian assistance in the region. And most importantly, we’re working as kind of a whole of governments with other departments and agencies, particularly USAID, on how we can address the longer-term development challenges that really are the root cause of people having to leave their homes. And we really think that that’s an important component over the longer term in terms of addressing what we know will be with us for a long time, this challenge of managing migration through the region.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Nancy.

I want to turn to some questions from the audience. I’m going to turn to you, Ralph, first. Dear friend and colleague Joel Charney of the Norwegian Refugee Council – everyone’s friend and colleague, asks us about: We’ve been pursuing development agendas and comprehensive strategies in Central America dating back to at least the Alliance for Progress in the early ’60s. And the Biden administration has pledged billions of dollars, and we’ve heard about really important comprehensive strategies, but why do such development challenges remain? And where do you see the opportunities to do things differently, you know, in this round of tackling this problem?

Ralph Merriam: Well, that is a question that has – it’s a simple question, and yet a very complex question, because it’s a very multilayered question. And challenges and opportunities are seen, you know, from the farm level all the way up to central governments and the institutionality of these countries. So let me address and speak a little bit to all of them.

At the very localized, farm level, you know, we’re facing a new set of challenges from climate change. And we can expect some significantly increased humanitarian pressures on the region from climate change, including increased food insecurity and malnutrition, greater stress from lack of access to water resources, greater vulnerability for women and increase in gender-based violence because, for instance, what has happened with the hurricanes, which has concentrated so many people in shelters, has created both a health crisis but also a situation that has placed women in more vulnerable conditions.

But there are – I think that underlying all of this there needs to be a concentrated and concerted approach to addressing some of the institutional challenges in these countries, the deep-seated corruption, the exclusion of most people from the political system. We all talk about inclusive this and inclusive that, but our institutionality in these countries is still very much structured around excluding most people from economic, political, and other social spaces. So addressing these issues at a macro level is very important. That will, I think, filter down into improving the opportunities for that small farmer to engage in.

How decisions are made in terms of investing in infrastructure. A good chunk of the revenue from coffee farming comes from a concentrated part of the country. And yet, the infrastructure – the road infrastructure that allows small coffee farmers to bring their product out to market is – still has a lot of work and a lot of improvement that needs to be made. But how those decisions are made is the underlying problem, because as has been mentioned, you know, millions and billions of dollars have been pumped. Have they been pumped into the right kinds of initiatives? Yes, some of them have. Some of them could have been better targeted.

And so an improved institutionality that expands and opens up more opportunities for citizen participation and engagement I think will be a part of that solution. And then we will have to also mention issues of improving policies and capacities of both central and local governments to deal with the climate change aspects of what – of the trends happening in the region. That goes beyond the traditional emergency capacity for preparedness response and disaster risk reduction into new areas that have to do a lot with – I’m a big advocate for improving water resource management – both the harvesting but also the management of flood waters.

And as we’ve seen in late 2020, that did as much damage as the pre – or more – as the previous five years of drought the region went through. So it’s managing those much more, you know, wild cycles of drought and rainfall is an important policy issue for the region as well. We have seen from El Salvador – I talked to several people who now even in the urban areas have no access to water and are considering migrating because they just don’t have enough water to drink, much less farm or do anything – any economic activity that involves access to water resources. So it’s a combination of addressing both macro and community farm-level issues. And they have to be addressed in tandem.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Ralph. You know, this – you talked a lot about climate, all of us. And there’s climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, but then we also have a question about these disasters, right? When Honduras gets hit by double hurricanes, you know, you can do kind of the best programming, but it changes the nature of the situation the ground and it has real impacts on, you know, the needs of the communities.

And I want to turn back to you, Kelly, a little bit. Thinking about, you know, this question of responding to natural disasters – this comes to us from Dr. Marisa Ensor. You know, when you think about that, how do you – how do you predict the future trends in an uncertain environment like this? What is UNHCR – when you look forward, right, what do you see as some of the future migration trends that we can expect to see in the coming year?

Kelly Clements: With a lot of help from our friends – (laughs) – is the short answer to that. It’s – listen, there’s a scientific empirical base, you know, when we’re talking about things like what’s the world going to look like in the impacts of climate change. But then there is also a certain level of unpredictability, particularly when you have the overlay of security on top of that, and the issues we’ve been talking extensively about in this discussion – about the handshake, the economic factors, and development.

So we have – there are tools. You know, many of us use predictive analytics, for example, to look at population movements and why – you know, Dan talked about that famous 8,000. You know, what, from a climactic point of view, what then drives displacement? What drives people to pick up and move? Where do you see places where agricultural crops are no longer viable in terms of being able to harvest and provide for communities or for broader economic purposes and the like?

So, you know, Nancy talked about the whole of government approach with regard to what’s happening, for example, in the asylum system and the root causes and the like. In a sense, on this, on drives of displacement, it’s a whole of community approach as well. We have, you know, the scientists, the humanitarians, the development experts, those looking at economic drivers and the like. It’s – it is an art rather than a science I think, overall. But – and we don’t always get it right. But we can certainly see that there is still going to be movement, particularly in this hemisphere, and more of it for the foreseeable future. So we need to get ready. We need to respond. We need to prepare. And we need to do this very much in partnership with many others.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks, Kelly.

Nancy, we have a bunch of questions here about corruption and some of the challenges in the region. And Ralph spoke to it as one of – you know, in response to Joel’s question of why we’re still dealing with some of these problems after so much money invested for so many years. My understanding is that PRM has worked to support also training some of these frontline migration workers, screening – people that are doing the screening, and identifying, and providing assistance to asylum seekers, which is a very unique moment of vulnerability and potentially an area of, you know, opportunity for corruption. And so can you speak to those types of activities, and the scale of them, and maybe some of the accomplishments that we’ve had so far?

Nancy Izzo Jackson: Sure. Happy to do so. Before I do that, I just also want to foot-stomp a little bit on my colleague’s comments about climate. Obviously, this is something we are very concerned about too. And as we look into the longer term, one of the things that we will be working with many of you out in the audience and around town is climate migration, and how do we better prepare for and respond to climate migration, because we know that that’s going to definitely be a trend in the future, and particularly in this region, as has been noted.

So our focus in terms of capacity building in the region is a little bit different than our development colleagues, obviously. It really has a protection lens. It doesn’t have that kind of longer-term development lens. But our focus is – and our investment has been over the long term. Like development, this is not something that’s going to be solved in a year or a week. We’ve been for over a decade investing in this region to build up the capacity on frontline migration workers, law enforcement, social welfare officials, and civil society organizations, to build their capacity, to identify people in need, screen people for what they need, and then provide lifesaving assistance as people move along the route.

So whether that be asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, that’s another big component of what we’re seeing in the region, as well as just vulnerable migrants. And so for example, in the last two years – in FY ’19 and ’20 – PRM has invested about $85 million in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. A lot of this money met towards immediate – meeting immediate humanitarian needs in terms of providing shelter, and access to services, and psychosocial support, and health care, and cash assistance – talking about what Ralph said about cash.

But it’s also gone to build, through our organizational partners like UNHCR, the organizational capacity of these governments to do that themselves, to provide for immediate humanitarian assistance and support to their nationals, as well as build out those nascent asylum systems so that people can find protection. It’s a long process. And it’s one that takes a lot of investment.

But I do want to give a big shoutout to something that Kelly started with, which was the tremendous advances that we’ve seen over the past four years in Mexico with the Mexican refugee agency, COMAR. And this was a great partnership by the U.S. government and UNHCR to invest in this organization. And as Kelly gave you the numbers, I mean, you’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers in Mexico. So Mexico is actually now a place of refuge. It’s a place where people can find safety.

And that’s four years in the making of a pretty intensive investment in that organization to be able to coordinate with their immigration service, the INM, to identify people who might be asylum seekers and make sure that they are then referred to COMAR, where they can find assistance. And then providing that assistance while they seek asylum. And a huge shoutout as well for the integration program that Kelly mentioned in Saltillo and a number of other cities, where I think we’ve seen a great opportunity to take asylum seekers in Mexico, move them from the borders to areas where there is a labor deficit, where there are jobs, where there is an ability for them to integrate into local communities while they wait for their asylum adjudication.

I had the opportunity a year or so ago to meet some of the beneficiaries of these programs. And it really was lifechanging. And it wasn’t just about investing in COMAR to do it. It was investing in the communities to do it too, where they’re being integrated. And that includes great outreach to local businesses who hire these individuals. So when we talk about investing in kind of longer-term solutions here, corruption, security, all of that really hard stuff that the development actors do, we also have this opportunity in terms of protection to invest in systems that provide immediate assistance, provide protection, but also looking at that integration and getting communities involved in providing support.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thanks for that, Nancy.

I want to now invite in my colleague Erol who’s been lurking in the background for this whole conversation. (Laughter.) But he’s really our expert at CSIS on migration policy and has written a lot about, you know, drivers of migration, effective migration policy, and recently has written and put out some really interesting stuff on climate migration. So, Erol, turning to you, you’ve now had the chance to listen to three experts from three different sort of perspectives talk about the challenges in Central America with respect to the various different drivers of migration. So I’d like to hear your reflections on today’s conversation, and some of the things that you’ve identified in your own research as both ways to tackle the drivers, but also policies for the migration and, you know, challenges in general.

Erol Yayboke: Thanks, Jake. And it’s really been fascinating to be lurking in the background. I think that these are brilliant minds that are thinking about these issues. And as someone who thinks about and cares about these issues, I’m coming out of this conversation excited about what the future holds, and really looking forward to supporting Kelly, and Ralph, and Nancy, and all of the other really excellent, devoted people that are working in this field.

I’m also cognizant that I’m – for those of us on the East Coast, I’m standing between you and lunch, which for me is just over there, but for some people you may actually have to go out and get those. So I’ll try to be brief, Jake. This has been a fascinating conversation. Lots of great questions from the audience. Lots of great participation. We should do this again because it seems like there’s a lot of interest.

Quickly summarizing and adding my own editorialization, if I can, I’m sensing that there’s some combination of three needs – three sort of things that have been focused on. One is the panelists talk a lot about protecting people in transit. And I think that’s really a critical thing. People are going to move. Post-COVID even more people are likely to move, because it will be considered by many to be safer. I think the focus on strengthening Mexico’s asylum system – I was – pre-Pandemic I was also in Chiapas and Mexico City, met with UNHCR, and IOM, and so many folks down there.

Kelly, you failed to mention the Confia en El Jaguar program that is happening or was happening when I was down there, which was a collaboration with Facebook, which – between Facebook and UNHCR, that I think is – UNHCR is doing really innovative things in Mexico. And it’s not just the Saltillo program, which I also learned about, but it’s Confia en El Jaguar. Google it. It’s really a phenomenal effort. And I think there are lessons beyond the region for what’s going on in Mexico. So kudos to UNHCR, and PRM, and other partners there.

I think the key with protecting people in transit is treating people with dignity and ensuring safe, regular, and orderly movement for all. But especially for – you know, Ralph talked about people escaping nightmares – especially for those people, and especially for women and children. And so a little bit of foot-stomping of what I heard from the panelists.

I think the second need that I see, which is more of my editorialization on the conversation, is I recently coauthored a piece at CSIS with Marie McAuliffe from the International Organization of Migration called “Rethinking Migration as Security Imperative, Just Not How You Might Think.” The idea being that, you know, if we are making it harder for people who need to move to move, they will seek irregular channels through which to move. And in doing so, they are kind of – we are, if we’re not making it easy for them – you know, we are inadvertently bolstering these kind of irregular networks that exist with nefarious actors, coyotes, smugglers, et cetera. And so I think that’s – we need to be thinking about this from a national security perspective, but not that migrants and asylum seekers and refugees are a national security concern, because that’s how the conversation normally goes. We need to be thinking about it from the sort of network perspective.

Lastly, there was a lot of really interesting talk about the need for addressing push factors. And I think that that is something that will take a whole-of-government approach. I was very happy to hear so much climate conversation. Jake, thanks for the plug on our – on our recent report from October. Nancy, I know that you and PRM, because of that executive order, you have to produce a report on climate migration. And a quick plug for “A New Framework for U.S. Leadership on Climate Migration,” is the – is what we wrote. And it includes some things that are kind of no-brainers – you know, rejoin Paris, reengage with the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration. But it also kind of maybe teases out some bolder ideas about a climate change related TPS program, maybe a regional compact on climate change and permanent cross-border displacement, et cetera. So there’s some big and small ideas there, and I would love to talk to you further about that.

Other push factors, violence and violent conflict prevention. The Global Fragility Act and the Global Fragility Strategy present an opportunity for us to refocus the U.S. government’s efforts on preventing violence that is so often at the heart of people – why people leave and escape nightmares, as Ralph so eloquently said. And then obviously, the anti-corruption piece is critical in the region as well.

So, Jake, thanks for having me. Thanks to the panelists. This was really phenomenal.

Jacob Kurtzer: Thank you, Erol, for your reflections and for your leadership at CSIS on migration and on this climate issue.

And we’ll wrap it up here. Kelly Clements from UNHCR, thank you so much for joining us. And a special thank you to your team in Washington who have been huge partners for both Erol and myself. Thanks, Ralph. And thank you very much Nancy Izzo Jackson from PRM for your time. And to all our people out in the audience, thank you for joining us, for your questions. And this event will be posted online in its entirety in about 48 hours. So thank you and wish you all a great day.