Central America migration crisis

People are fleeing the kind of violence we usually see in war zones

Pictured here in Mexico, 54-year-old Rosa fled gang violence in El Salvador with two of her grandchildren.
MEXICO 2016 © Christina Simons/MSF
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What is the Central American migration crisis?

Every year, an estimated 500,000 people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras flee extreme violence and poverty and head north through Mexico to find safety. The high levels of violence in the region, known as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), are comparable to that in war zones where MSF has worked for decades.

The countries of the NTCA have long been burdened by deep social inequality, political instability, and conflict—and in some cases have been further destabilized by US interventions in the region over the past 40 years. Now these countries are also contending with the rapid expansion of transnational organized crime, which has exploded over the past decade. Across this region, drug and human trafficking by criminal groups known as maras, coupled with widespread corruption and weak law enforcement, have resulted in an environment where civilians face the ever-present threat of violence.

Gang-related murders, kidnappings, extortion, and sexual violence are daily facts of life. “In my country, killing is ordinary—it is as easy as killing an insect with your shoe,” said one man from Honduras, who was threatened by gang members for refusing their demand for protection money, and later shot three times.

Central Americans fleeing violence often face more of the same along the migration route through Mexico. In 2020, MSF published a special report based on 480 interviews and testimonies of Central American migrants and asylum seekers, experiences of MSF staff, and medical data from more than 26,000 people helped along the migration route through Mexico during the first nine months of 2019.


The facts about the humanitarian crisis in Mexico and Central America

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The facts about the Central American refugee and humanitarian crisis

of respondents were exposed to a violent situation during the two years prior to leaving their home country
of patients surveyed were victims of violence while in transit through Mexico
of people traveling with children reported leaving home due to violence

How MSF is helping people on the move in Central America and at the US-Mexico border?

MSF teams have been providing medical and mental health care to migrants and refugees along the migration routes through Mexico since January 2013. From 2015 to late 2019, we have provided more than 42,000 medical consultations and more than 11,000 mental health consultations for migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and deportees in Mexico. Many of our patients need mental health support due to the significant stresses related to conditions in their home countries as well as on the run. Treatment for women often includes medical and psychosocial care for victims of sexual violence. Teams provide primary care as well as treatment for acute and chronic diseases whenever possible.

We are constantly looking for new ways to provide care for people while they’re on the move. Our team in Mexico is collaborating with refugees and migrants to design a chatbot that allows patients to receive and share general health care information on their mobile phones. The bot, which was piloted in 2018, will also enable people with urgent mental health issues to directly connect with our teams.

MSF’s direct experience on the ground points to a broader humanitarian crisis in Central America. Despite the catastrophic conditions in the region, the US and Mexico generally treat people from the Northern Triangle as economic migrants, and have focused efforts on detention and deportation rather than on providing protection and support. MSF is calling on the US and Mexico to provide humane treatment to all refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants and to stop deportations of vulnerable people back to a dangerous region.