No Life Here: Internal Displacement in El Salvador

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Author: Angelika Albaladejo

Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth in this series on violence in El Salvador.

The horrific violence gripping El Salvador has contributed to a humanitarian crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee their homes. But the Salvadoran government has not fully recognized the problem of internal displacement and has failed to provide solutions.

In 2015, 324,000 people were displaced by crime and violence in El Salvador, up from 280,000 displaced in 2014. This type of “exodus,” as it has been described by civil society organizations, is typically led by women in the community and “constitutes a break in the social fabric, an uprooting of the community marked by a disruption in the education of children and youth.”

Making matters worse, the alarming level of displacement shows no signs of slowing in 2016. In fact, the International Rescue Committee included El Salvador in its “Crisis Watch List for 2016” which highlights countries where escalating violence and insecurity will likely continue fueling displacement.

Gangs and other criminal organizations are by far the main violent actors causing internal displacement, according to cases documented between August 2014 and December 2015 by the Civil Society Roundtable Against Forced Displacement, as seen in the chart below:

 Violent Actors Causing Displacement 2014-2015

Many displaced Salvadorans who have been forced into hiding do not see an opportunity to fully develop as a person in their home country. The only real options for most are participating in dangerous criminal activities or working in insecure, informal jobs – for example, as unlicensed street vendors or domestic workers at risk of exploitation and extortion.

Or, they can migrate.

“No one in this country lives without this incredible fear,” says Noah Bullock, director of the San Salvador-based human rights organization Fundación Cristosal. Even those Salvadorans not experiencing violence first-hand still live with the stress and trauma associated with constant media and political discussion about violence.

However, Bullock clarifies that “the violence is suffered disproportionately by the poor” and that this inequality may be one of the reasons that such high levels of displacement might be tolerated or made invisible.

Many Salvadorans seek safety within their home country before fleeing abroad. “Displacement is a preamble for external migration because the country is so small,” explains Dr. Mauricio Gaborit, head of the psychology department at the University of Central America (UCA). “One person told me, ‘if I flee, the gangs will find me in 24 hours.’”

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) face major restrictions of movement and access to safety in El Salvador, a country smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey. “This isn’t an IDP crisis of concentration” with large groups of IDPs gathering in public spaces, Bullock says. “It’s invisible because those fleeing violence go into hiding.”

When threatened, a Salvadoran might self-incarcerate within their home. When that is no longer safe, they might stay with family members. And when the displaced person runs out of options, they will often be forced to leave the country.

When displaced Salvadorans flee the country, they often have little to no time to prepare. Many individuals and families leave without selling their home or business, without making arrangements with smugglers, and with just a few dollars in their pockets.

The migrants who leave everything behind and migrate without a plan are “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” says Dr. Gaborit.
As violence increases, more family units —most commonly a mother with her children— are traveling together rather than sending their children alone or with a smuggler.

Women and girls make up the majority of Salvadorans whose displacement was registered by the Civil Society Roundtable Against Forced Displacement between August 2014 and December 2015. Almost a third of those displaced during this time were children or adolescents, as seen in the following chart:

Victims of Forced Internal Displacement by Age and Gender

Insecurity, violence, and poverty are increasing as primary reasons for migration, although family reunification remains a key factor for leaving the country, according to Dr. Gaborit. 500 to 600 Salvadorans emigrate every day, mainly to the United States without documents, according to estimates by the Committee on Rights of Migrants.

Researchers at UCA estimate that each year about 145,000 people migrate without documents from El Salvador. Currently, over 2 million Salvadorans live outside of the country, representing nearly 30 percent of the total population. In other words, 1 out of every 3 Salvadorans lives outside of El Salvador.

While security concerns are a common thread among most if not all migrants, the specific reasons for leaving and the experiences migrants have en route vary widely by age and gender.

 3 El Salvador Migration Poster in ORMUSA offices - Angelika

“Don’t put your life at risk. The journey to the United States by land and without a visa isn’t easy. Don’t expose your daughters and sons to a trip full of dangers that could result in death,” reads a poster commissioned by the Salvadoran government’s National Council for Children and Adolescents (Consejo Nacional de la Niñez y de la Adolescencia, CONNA). Photo credit: Angelika Albaladejo

Most often, migration is not an individual choice, but a family decision. Salvadorans with family members in the United States often migrate in the hope of reunifying with their relatives. Some young Salvadorans grow up knowing that they will emigrate at some point in their lives.

These young people plan ahead for the difficult journey and exercise to prepare themselves. For boys, the ninth grade is often a watershed year when they begin to view themselves as adults. If they are unlikely to continue with school, this is when they are often forced to decide whether to join a gang, struggle to find a job, or migrate. If the boy flees his community due to threats or recruitment pressure by a gang, the gang’s threats can shift to remaining family members, often leading to the displacement or migration of the entire family.

In spite of the fact that the education ministry recorded a sharp increase in school desertion as a result of violence (now the primary reason behind drop outs), if a child is threatened by gangs and forced to flee his community, Salvadoran law requires that the child return to their original school to acquire the proper documentation needed to transfer to a new school, further endangering that child.

The number of girls migrating from El Salvador has increased, due to various factors, including the push of violence and displacement, as well as the pull of family reunification. Women and girls face extreme levels of violence on a daily basis in El Salvador, with 61 percent of Salvadoran girls listing crime, gang threats, and violence as reasons for leaving their home country. Some girls may also be migrating at a younger age to avoid being raped en route to the United States, according to research conducted by UCA.

One informal survey indicates that more than 80 percent of Central American women and girl migrants say they were raped en route when interviewed by shelters after reaching the United States. Many of these women anticipate that they will be raped and attempt to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy with a birth control injection that lasts for three months. But, as Dr. Gaborit points out, “there is no immunization against violence” and the trauma of rape cannot be prevented.

Many Salvadorans seeking protection and security instead end up in insecure and dangerous situations along the migrant route, falling prey to human trafficking, rape, robbery, and organized crime, in addition to human rights violations committed by immigration and security forces in Mexico and the United States.

Since the “surge” of unaccompanied child migrants in 2014, migration from El Salvador hasn’t significantly slowed or stopped. U.S. immigration authorities continue to apprehend large numbers of family units and unaccompanied children from El Salvador along the southern border, even though Mexico has ramped up enforcement efforts. Between 2014 and 2015, Mexico’s apprehensions of Central American migrants increased by more than 80 percent, from 49,893 to 92,889. Nevertheless, U.S. apprehensions of child and family migrants remain at an historic high.

The migration process is complex, prolonged, and often cyclical. Even when apprehended, detained, and deported back to their home country multiple times, most migrants will not be dissuaded from immediately trying again. Returned migrants are stigmatized in Salvadoran society and viewed as “delinquents” or “weak” for having been deported back. In addition, smugglers often offer migrants package deals – multiple attempts for a fixed price. And if one family member doesn’t make it, that investment can sometimes be transferred to another.

For most returned migrants, there is no choice but to leave again since the original threats still exist. In fact, forthcoming research by social scientist Elizabeth Kennedy documents 45 cases of Salvadorans who have been murdered on their return to El Salvador after being deported from the United States.

In spite of these highly concerning issues surrounding returned migrants, in January 2016, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began “nationwide enforcement operations to take into custody and return at a greater rate adults who entered this country illegally with children” after May 1, 2014. The raids targeting children and families have already begun returning vulnerable individuals to the violent conditions they fled.

Almost simultaneously, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Refugee Admissions Program would be expanded to allow a greater number of Central Americans fleeing violence to be admitted into the United States. In response, activists and human rights defenders have highlighted the contradictory messaging in the simultaneous mass deportation of undocumented immigrants in the United States and the screening of potential refugees in their countries of origin.

Shortly after the deportation raids began in the United States, the Salvadoran government announced a new Reinsertion Program for Returned Migrants, but it remains to be seen if the services provided will be effective in protecting and reintegrating returned Salvadorans.

The Salvadoran government does not fully recognize forced internal displacement as a major problem facing the country, further exacerbating the problems of displacement and migration. Currently, the state does not document cases of internal displacement and there are few victims’ programs or options for relocation. The government has reacted defensively to ongoing criticism from all sides, and it has denied the problems of internal displacement to avoid the ARENA opposition party’s claims that El Salvador is a failed state.

The problem of displacement is part of the broader issue of insecurity and it should be incorporated into the Salvadoran government’s security strategy. By fully recognizing the problem of internal displacement as a precursor to migration, the Salvadoran government could develop programs and inter-institutional cooperation to address the needs of IDPs and other victims of violence. This will involve strengthening the social fabric in communities by providing education and work opportunities and developing reinsertion programs for returned migrants and former gang members.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized the problem and has called “on all countries in Central and North America to: Recognize the growing refugee situation in the region; Establish adequate capacity at borders to ensure the identification of persons in need of international protection; and Move swiftly towards a coordinated regional approach to this problem aimed at enhancing access to protection and solutions for refugees and at addressing the root causes of forced displacement.”

To fill the void of inattention and lack of services by the state, Salvadoran civil society organizations formed the Civil Society Roundtable Against Forced Displacement by Violence and Organized Crime in 2015 with the goal of raising awareness about the severity of the problem of forced displacement, analyzing the current approach to attention to victims, and urging governmental institutions to take action.

 IACHR Displacement Hearing - IACHRFlickr

Petitioners at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hearing on forced internal displacement in El Salvador at the Organization of American States. From left to right: Pedro Martinez of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA), Abraham Abrego of the Foundation for the Study of the Application of Rights (FESPAD), Noah Bullock of Fundación Cristosal. Photo credit: Daniel Cima

In July 2015, the Roundtable presented the Salvadoran government with a comprehensive report on displacement issues produced in collaboration with Refugees International. Representatives from the Roundtable also participated in a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on October 20, 2015, to advocate for increased government action to assist citizens who have been forcibly displaced in El Salvador. In January 2016, the Roundtable released a detailed report highlighting the issues discussed in the hearing and analyzing extensive data of internal displacement from 2014 to 2015.

Salvadoran civil society organizations argue that the state needs to make a greater effort to understand the factors that place Salvadorans at risk of displacement. Documenting cases of displacement could lead to informed adaptations to existing governmental institutions and programs meant to provide protection services for victims, such as the National Council for Children and Adolescents (CONNA) and the Salvadoran Institute for the Development of Women (ISDEMU).

In El Salvador, whole families often flee violence as a group but existing institutions are individually focused on providing services to a specific demographic, for example children or women, but not whole families. To improve protection measures, the government approach must include indirect victims –such as the relatives of a threatened individual– in order to help whole families that are affected.

Overall, “countries of origin, transit, and destination have a responsibility to respect existing international protocols and refugee protection laws and the rights of migrants,” says Dr. Gaborit. “Without that, we get nowhere.”

Note: For a synthesis of the impacts of U.S. immigration and foreign policies on migrant rights across the region, see An Update on U.S. Immigration & Foreign Policy for Central American, Mexican, & U.S. Civil Society Organizations: Where Do We Stand Now? by Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Emma Buckhout, and Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group.