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Displacement in Central America


Displacement in Central America

The number of refugees and asylum seekers from Central America has soared in the last five years.

Worsening crime and violence fuelled by drug cartels and gangs, as well as fragile institutions, account for much of the increase, exacerbated by increasing inequalities, the impact of climate emergencies and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Nicaragua, political turmoil continues to drive large-scale displacement.
Girl traveling with other asylum seekers and migrants from Central America holds her belongings while making her way to Mapastepec from Huixtla, Mexico, at sunrise

“We had our own bakery in El Salvador, until gangs arrived, and we could no longer sell bread. We were threatened out of our country.”

Raul*, 65, fled with his family from El Salvador to Guatemala

The stark choice for thousands in Central America is to leave or risk death. They are compelled to flee their homes and risk their lives undertaking dangerous journeys, searching for a safe place to live. They often arrive only with the clothes they are wearing, traumatized and in need of urgent support.

Growing numbers of people in Central America are being forced to leave their homes. Worldwide, there are now around 597,000 refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. They are escaping gang violence, threats, extortion, recruitment into gangs or prostitution, as well as gender-based violence (GBV). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people – collectively known as LGBTI – are also fleeing persecution. Many more are displaced multiple times within their own countries or have been deported back home, often into dangerous situations. All of this is exacerbated by instability and poverty, climate shocks and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.

Political turmoil in Nicaragua since April 2018 meanwhile, has led some 200,000 people to flee persecution and human rights abuses, the vast majority – 150,000 — into neighbouring Costa Rica. More Nicaraguans have sought protection in Costa Rica since 2018 than people fleeing Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s.

Overall, more than a million people from Central America have been uprooted from their homes both within their own countries and in neighbouring ones. Host countries and communities in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Panama, have been doing their best to welcome those forced to flee. With new policies to regularize their stay and allow for their speedy integration, thousands of people have been able to restart their lives. Yet the growing number of people seeking safety is overstretching their hosts’ capacity to cope, straining limited services that also serve the local population.

“This project to me means hope. Even though we had to leave our country, we have the chance to make one dream come true in our lives.”

Isabel, 56, from Honduras who is becoming self-reliant thanks to a government and private-sector employability project in Guatemala

What is UNHCR doing to help?

Everyone has the right to seek safety. No one should be forced to leave everything behind, to face unfathomable tragedy. We work tirelessly across Central America to ensure that anyone who flees violence and persecution can seek asylum in other countries or protection in their own.

UNHCR works with the seven governments leading the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS), seeking innovative solutions to the displacement crisis in Central America, in the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees and the Sustainable Development Goals.

We work closely with partners, including civil society and faith-based organizations, in high-risk and displaced communities to increase their resilience and support those who have been forcibly displaced. We are also encouraging solutions for internally displaced people, refugees, asylum seekers and deportees with protection needs from Central America.

To this end, we strive to help enhance the capacity of refugee-receiving countries to provide access to fair and efficient refugee status determination procedures. We are supporting safe space networks and shelters across Central America and Mexico so that immediate assistance is available to people on the move and that those in need of international protection are identified.

We also work with other humanitarian organizations and with development agencies to make sure that we reach those we serve  in countries of origin, including through programmes that seek to empower internally displaced people, children, women, deportees with protection needs, LGTBI people and others affected by violence. We provide life-saving support and cash grants to help displaced people cope.

Furthermore, we promote the local integration of refugees and asylum-seekers in their host countries and help them to use their skills or learn new ones. We are also investing in efforts to curb xenophobia and promote peaceful coexistence among the displaced and their hosts.

“I have always been a fighter. I will not stay put and watch my life pass before me.”

Sara*, a 29-year-old mother who worked in food distribution, fled to Guatemala with her husband and baby. She had joined the protests in Nicaragua and feared for her family’s safety.


Are you a refugee or asylum-seeker? Find information about your rights and available services on our HELP site.

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Are you looking for data on displacement in Central America? Visit the UNHCR data portal for the latest data and statistics on refugees and other displaced persons.

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Operational updates

For information on UNHCR's operational response, budgets and funding, please visit the Americas page on Global Focus.

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