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by Giovanni Lepri, UNHCR Representative for Mexico, Theresa Beltramo, Senior Economist, UNHCR, and Craig Loschmann, Economist, UNHCR Americas

Eleven-year-old Honduran refugee child follows a school lesson on his cell phone at home in northern Mexico. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, classes are held online. © UNHCR/Ruben Salgado Escudero

Mexico’s geographic position and higher GDP per capita compared to its neighbours has historically led to complex migration and displacement dynamics, including as a source and transit country for migrants travelling to the United States.

In recent years, however, it is increasingly viewed as a country of destination, and a greater number of individuals, mainly from Central America, express their intention to remain and seek international protection in Mexico (according to UNHCR official populations figures). As of end-of-year 2021, Mexico hosts 459,046 persons of concern to UNHCR (Figure 1). That figure is likely to rise further, with the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) reporting a record number of individuals – 131,448 – applying for asylum in 2021.

The steep increase in arrivals of displaced persons calls for a multi-year, sustainable approach backed by data and evidence. This is especially relevant as that the Latin America and the Caribbean region has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite representing just 8.4% of the total world population, the region makes up 18.5% of COVID-19 cases and 30.3% of deaths globally as of October 2021 (CEPAL and UNICEF, 2021). Besides the impact on human life, the pandemic has taken a heavy economic toll. According to Mexico’s latest poverty figures, 3.8 million more Mexicans fell below the national poverty line in 2020. And though the unemployment rate has improved since the worst of the pandemic in June 2020, it is still higher than pre-pandemic levels (INEGI, 2022).

Against this backdrop, a new study by UNHCR and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) – based on two rounds of a phone survey between March and September 2021 – sheds light on pandemic’s impact on the livelihoods and general wellbeing of persons of concern to UNHCR. The survey was conducted among a random sample of UNHCR’s registered population as well as the surrounding host community, allowing for direct comparisons across both populations. In addition, the survey was modeled after the World Bank High Frequency Phone Survey conducted in Mexico alongside some 70-plus countries globally (World Bank, 2021), which allows for comparison with national metrics where possible.

Displaced persons and the host community are financially depleted, and the pandemic has worsened food insecurity

The survey shows that the loss of income-generating activities has left households in a precarious situation. For both displaced and host communities, 68% report lower family income compared to pre-COVID times. To cope financially, 56% of displaced respondents and 42% of host community respondents say they were forced to deplete assets or rely on others to meet daily needs. Across the whole sample of people surveyed, 3 out of 4 respondents report not owning a bank or mobile savings accounts.

Food insecurity is high, particularly for displaced Hondurans and Salvadorans, who are at least 30 percentage points more likely to say they ran out of food in the last 30 days compared to Venezuelan and host community respondents (54% versus 23% and 19%, respectively). Food insecurity extends to children – 13% of Honduran and Salvadoran respondents report a child going without food for 24 hours in the last 30 days compared to 4% of the host community and 2% of Venezuelans (Figure 2).

The employment rate improved slightly between the two rounds of the survey, though Honduran and Salvadorans are least likely to be employed and less likely to be in formal employment

Between both rounds of the survey, the employment rate among respondents improved by 5 percentage points (72% versus 67%). However, there is a considerable difference between the host community and Venezuelan respondents relative to Hondurans and Salvadorans. By round 2 of the survey, 80% of Venezuelans are employed, a rate that is comparable to host community respondents, whereas Honduran and Salvadoran respondents trail by 9 percentage points.

Displaced respondents are significantly less likely than the host community to have formal employment and therefore access to social security (Figure 3). Honduran and Salvadoran respondents, in particular, are much less likely to be employed in the formal sector, which puts them at higher risk of unfair labour practices and reduces their access to the employment-based social security system. In the second round of the survey, 56% of the host community, 49% of Venezuelans and 27% of Honduran and Salvadoran respondents report having a formal contract.

A considerable share of all households receive income from a variety of sources and 3 out of 5 respondents cite multiple sources of household income, which helps cushion against discrete job loss. Wages and business or self-employment are the primary sources of income for the host community as well as for displaced Venezuelan households, whereas Honduran and Salvadoran households are significantly less likely to have earned wages or income from business or self-employment (Figure 4). Remittances are shown to also be an important source of income, especially for Honduran and Salvadoran households.

More than 75% of school age children are enrolled in school, though challenges around remote learning disproportionately affect Honduran and Salvadoran families

School closures represented a major disruption for households with school-aged children. For those children enrolled in March 2020, there is modest evidence of dropouts among Honduran and Salvadoran children as illustrated in Figure 5. In addition, the quality of school is perceived to be worse as the pandemic persisted. Around half of all respondents believe the quality of school to be poor or very poor in August 2021, compared to only 10% prior to March 2020. Challenges around remote learning are likely the main reason, especially for Honduran and Salvadoran displaced households who report less access to all potential remote learning resources including the internet and computers.

Using the new evidence in policymaking

The survey shows that displaced Honduran and Salvadoran households are notably worse off in nearly all measures compared to the Venezuelan population and host community, a fact that must be taken into consideration when designing public policies and programmes for these populations.

UNHCR is using this data to ensure evidence informs our response through the pandemic and beyond. A central part of UNHCR Mexico’s response to the growing number of arrivals along the southern border has been the voluntary relocation of persons of concern in the South to communities elsewhere in the country that have higher absorption capacity of workers. As part of this, UNHCR Mexico advocates for wider social and economic inclusion, including into the local health system, education system and population registry.

In addition, UNHCR Mexico works with local authorities, the private sector, academia and civil society to promote greater financial inclusion among persons of concern. Ultimately working alongside both local and international development partners as well as government authorities, UNHCR supports both displaced and host populations with the goal of reducing inequities, supporting entire communities, and strengthening local markets more comprehensively.