The ‘spiralling crisis’ pushing Hondurans to flee north
Thousands in US-bound migrant caravan were returned to Honduras this month, but many say they will try again. Here’s why.
Vado Hondo, Guatemala – Lucia Andino stood by the side of the road, watching the nearby movements of Guatemalan military police in riot gear. “I guess we are going back to living under a bridge,” she said matter-of-factly, as she waited for a bus to take her back to Honduras.
Andino was among an estimated 7,500 migrants and asylum seekers, the vast majority Honduran, who set out together in mid-January for Mexico and the United States. Roughly two-thirds have since been sent back from Guatemala.
Like so many others in the migrant caravan, Andino and her relatives lost everything when hurricanes Eta and Iota swept through Central America last November.
But Honduras was in crisis long before the hurricanes, which hit during the coronavirus pandemic and in the context of a still-volatile political situation and decades of inequality.
“The crisis in Honduras is a permanent crisis,” said Isabella Orellana, a sociologist and former dean of the San Pedro Sula campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the country’s public university.
“It does not come in waves. It is a spiralling crisis,” she told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.
More than four million Hondurans were affected by Eta and Iota, UN agencies stated in a situation report covering up to January 13, the eve of migrant caravan groups departing from the bus station in San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras.
Hurricane rains caused rivers to overflow around the country, flooding cities, towns, and farmland. The storms also washed out highways, roads and bridges and completely cut off access to many communities.
Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Roughly 88,000 Hondurans were still in shelters earlier this month, and thousands are living in encampments under bridges and alongside roads in northwestern Honduras.
“Although the government says people are not alone, the truth is that the population has been alone,” said Orellana. “It was largely people helping other people out.”
Many people have been living under bridges because streets and homes in neighbourhoods of La Lima, El Progreso, San Pedro Sula and other areas in northwestern Honduras are still full of mud left behind after floodwaters receded.
“The mud is still there, and it cannot just be removed with a shovel. Heavy equipment is needed,” said Orellana.
‘We lost everything’
That is the case for Andino and many of her relatives. The Chamelecon River overflowed, completely flooding their homes in La Lima, a city of more than 75,000 just 12 miles (19.5km) southeast of San Pedro Sula.
At the time, Andino, 34, had moved in with her youngest sister to help her raise three young children after her sister’s husband died of cancer. Along with two other siblings, they all joined the migrant caravan, sticking together as a family group.
“We lost everything,” Andino told Al Jazeera. “We were sleeping under a bridge in San Pedro Sula. That is why we left.”
They only made it 27 miles (43km) into Guatemala before military and police forces blocked their advance this month in Vado Hondo, leaving thousands of migrants and asylum seekers stuck along a highway for nearly 48 hours with little water or food.
On January 18, when the government’s negotiation attempts failed, hundreds of soldiers and police forcibly cleared people off the highway. Guatemala requires proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test for entry, and it cited public health and security to justify its crackdown on the caravan.
Militarised checkpoints remain throughout the country, but the concentration of security forces has shifted from areas bordering Honduras to areas bordering Mexico, where smaller groups of migrants and asylum seekers have been arriving. Some have evaded military and police patrols and made it into Mexico, while others have not.
Guatemala has gradually sent more than 4,800 Hondurans back as of Sunday night, according to Guatemalan immigration officials. It has also returned more than 100 Salvadorans and a handful of Nicaraguans to their respective countries.
Many in the caravan were hopeful that US President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20 would drastically change their situation en route and at the US border. That was not the case, as the US, Mexican and Guatemalan government have continued to work together to stop caravans.
Biden discussed immigration issues in a call on Friday with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, including his $4bn plan for northern Central America that he has said aims to address the root causes of migration. Critics say those efforts will be hampered by rampant government corruption in Honduras, however.
As with other recent migrant caravans, the size of the collective exodus this month made it highly visible. But Hondurans travel in caravans largely for safety in numbers, not necessarily because more people are fleeing.
During the course of the 2019 fiscal year, the US apprehended more than 250,000 Hondurans at the US southern border, according to US Customs and Border Protection data. In fiscal year 2020, a little more 40,000 were apprehended or expelled.
The figures represent a fraction of the migrants fleeing Honduras. Mexico usually deports more Central Americans than the US, and many Hondurans stay in Mexico or make it into the US undetected. But the US border statistics give an indication of trends over time.
US border apprehensions and expulsions of Hondurans reached a low of 1,746 in May 2020, but the number began to rise significantly in September. By December, after the hurricanes, the number leapt to 10,351.
Rosario Martinez, a Guatemalan researcher with the Latin American Social Studies Institute, has studied Central American migration patterns in recent years, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From March to June, migration continued but slowed to a trickle,” she told Al Jazeera. “Many people were stuck during lockdowns.”
When migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador began picking back up in mid-2020, Martinez said pandemic-related unemployment and job precarity prompted many professionals to migrate with the intention of staying in Mexico to look for work.
Long before the pandemic, Mexico had become the intended destination for many Central Americans despite widespread insecurity and violence and, in some parts of the country, the specific targeting of migrants and asylum seekers.
In 2019, more than 30,000 Hondurans requested asylum there in 2019 – up from 13,679 a year earlier – and even though the pandemic slowed migration last year, 15,440 Hondurans requested asylum in Mexico in 2020.
“More people are no longer thinking of going to the US,” Martinez said. “What used to be transit countries are now becoming destination countries for many.”
Violence in Honduras
Mario, the co-owner of an auto-paint workshop in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, fled to Mexico in October after he said members of a criminal gang threatened him when his business partner did not pay them extortion.
“My life was in danger,” said Mario, who requested his real name not be used for security reasons. “I was getting death threats.”
Violence in Honduras skyrocketed after the military removed the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, from office in 2009, with the country recording the highest per capita homicide rate in the world outside of an active warzone the next year.
More people are no longer thinking of going to the US. What used to be transit countries are now becoming destination countries for many.
While that rate has since waned, political violence has been a constant in Honduras since the coup, and opposition politicians, protesters, Indigenous leaders, journalists, environmental activists, and others who speak out have been murdered.
Violence in Honduras is usually attributed to gangs and organised crime, but US federal prosecutors have implicated high-level politicians, the military and police in cocaine trafficking to the US, as well.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been a longtime US ally, including in the US “war on drugs”. He is also an unindicted co-conspirator in the case of his brother, former congressman Antonio Hernandez, convicted in 2019 on drug trafficking and weapons charges.
Mario was recently granted asylum in Mexico. But back in Tegucigalpa, his 18-year-old son, the eldest of five children, is being threatened and pressured to join a criminal group, he said.
Mexico has a family reunification programme allowing the partners and children of people with asylum to join them, but those relatives have to get to the Mexican border.
Mario set out from southern Mexico in mid-January to bring his wife and children to join him. While thousands of Hondurans were heading north through Guatemala, he was heading in the opposite direction. But he still got caught at a militarised checkpoint.
“I did not know about the caravan,” he told Al Jazeera at the checkpoint in La Ruidosa, a highway junction between two migrant routes in eastern Guatemala.
Along with roughly 20 Honduran migrants and asylum seekers who had just begun to head north, Mario waited in the shade for a police bus that would take them back across the border into Honduras. Many Hondurans being sent back from Guatemala this month said they would try to make the northward journey again soon.
So will Mario, but traversing Guatemala should be his only real obstacle since he already has asylum in Mexico; they should be safe from deportation if they can just make it to the Mexican side of the border.
“My son is in danger,” he said. “I have to go back.”