EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Almost one in two residents of Northern Triangle countries considered migrating internationally in 2021, a big increase over the 8 percent that expressed such intentions in 2019, a new report shows.

Citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador polled by three international organizations cited poverty, food insecurity, violence, and weather-related events for their desire to look for a better life in the United States and elsewhere. But while 43 percent of those interviewed said they were considering leaving, only 3 percent had carried through with concrete plans.

More than 378,000 Central Americans have migrated to the U.S. in the past five years, according to the report by the UN World Food Program, the Migration Policy Institute and the Civic Data Design Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier reported encountering more than 1.7 million unauthorized migrants along the Southwest border in the fiscal year 2021 and almost 1.9 million overall including the northern border, air and seaports.

The organizations strongly link food insecurity to migration. Individuals who feel they can no longer properly feed their families are three times more likely to migrate than other residents.

“We are seeing an exodus from Central America as hunger and despair force many to migrate in search of a better life. Families are being separated and communities are being destroyed as poverty, climate change and now COVID-19 have left many people feeling they have no choice but to head north,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program.

Food insecurity rose in Central America due to economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers say. The World Food Program in October estimated that the number of food-insecure people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras grew from 2.2 million in 2019 to 6.4 million in 2021.

Beasley called for additional funding for UN food programs so people struggling to feed their families don’t feel the need to migrate. “We know they would much rather stay at home,” he said.

The main reasons people who want to leave don’t make the trip are the high cost of paying smugglers and fear of being separated from their loved ones.

The report says most migrants pay smugglers an average of $7,500 to get them across the U.S. border by any means available. In nine out of 10 cases, their destination is the United States.  

Most migrants, 55 percent, were said to have hired a smuggler at an average cost of $7,500 per person, while migrating through legal channels came at a cost of $4,500. For 89 percent of people, the United States was their intended destination country.

The survey also found that fear of violence and crime was often cited as motivation to migrate, in addition to living in poverty. Two hurricanes that struck Central America in November 2020 also exacerbated migration.

MPI President Andrew Sele called for international investment in needy communities.

“Given the repeated cyclical patterns of rising Central American migration northward, it is clearly time for a strategy that moves beyond unilateral enforcement actions to recognize not only the drivers of migration but also the nuanced contexts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that smart investment and community strengthening policies should address,” he said.

That includes an expansion of social protection programs in those countries. If you alleviate poverty and eradicate hunger, key populations might refrain from migrating; funding school lunch programs will feed children from needy families and sustain local small farmers, he said.

Also, legal immigration to the United States is less costly (about $4,500) than hiring a smuggler, but few needy Central Americans feel that’s a realistic option for them. The report recommends that the U.S. and other destination countries for Central American migrants expand legal migration from the Northern Triangle and increase temporary employment (or guest-worker) visas.

“We cannot expect different results from the same actions,” said Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, which assisted in the study. “We have been implementing migration containment policies for years, which have proven to be insufficient. Hence the great value of this study, which presents evidence that migration in most cases is a survival mechanism and not the voluntary exercise of a right.”

You can find the report here.