SAN ANSELMO, California — Even before the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were fleeing from organized crime and severe violence. These Central American refugees were banding together in caravans to travel north toward the United States and Mexico or south toward Costa Rica in the hope that they could claim asylum in these host countries. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the numerous risks to Central American refugees exacerbated, such as violence, internal displacement, cramped detention centers and physical and mental health problems.
Loss of Livelihood
One of the reasons that the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the already precarious living situations of Central American refugees is the restrictive economic measures working to prevent COVID-19 transmission has resulted in the loss of income for many in the region. This is leading to internal displacement and increased hunger, with three-quarters of Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica eating only once or twice a day.
Reflecting the dire economic situation for Central American refugees, the United Nations Refugee Agency reports that a mere 59% of Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica are earning work-related income, down from 93% before the pandemic. Not only do these economic conditions result in increased displacement and hunger, but they also force some refugees to consider returning to their home countries, despite the high risk of violence and crime.
Restrictions on Movement
In addition to the negative socioeconomic effects of the pandemic, border closures among Central American countries have hindered the ability of Central American refugees to flee from dangerous situations in their home countries. Among a group of refugees surveyed, 84% reported that they were postponing their migratory journeys due to the pandemic. Additionally, 20% of those surveyed stated their intention to try to return to their country of origin, despite the movement restrictions.
For those seeking asylum in the United States, border closures have not been the only impediment to migration. The economic and societal circumstances of the pandemic have resulted in delays in asylum application processes. Furthermore, the crisis led to difficulties in satisfying the requirements of the asylum application process due to understaffing at medical clinics and canceled fingerprinting appointments. Former President Trump’s actions to limit the maximum number of refugees to the United States to 18,000 during 2020 also played a role in limiting the options afforded to Central American refugees.
Physical and Mental Health
The pandemic has increased risk factors to the physical and mental health of Central American refugees. In a survey, nearly 60% of respondents indicated increased stress and anxiety during the pandemic due to uncertainty about their livelihood and fear of violence. Additionally, concerns about infection due to COVID-19 rose with 7% of those surveyed indicating they suspected that they contracted COVID-19 at some point. Only 33% of those surveyed were able to seek medical care in their countries of residence.
Another factor that endangers the physical and mental health of refugees and asylum seekers from Central America is the condition of detention centers where they stay while awaiting developments in their asylum applications. Doctors Without Borders states that detention centers in Mexico are overcrowded, lacking in water and devoid of medical services. These circumstances make it easy for COVID-19 to spread among the refugees.
Organizations Helping the Central American Refugees
While these factors all serve to aggravate the precarious, unstable situations that Central American refugees deal with, there is work that can ameliorate the conditions facing Central American refugees. The United Nations Refugee Agency provides assistance in the form of cash, provision of cleaning supplies and food, counseling and coordination efforts to help those who are at risk and extricate those whose lives are in critical danger due to possible violence.
Doctors Without Borders works to provide medical expertise and psychological care to Central American refugees in Mexico City and elsewhere along the common migration route north from Central America. In addition, the United States Government has the ability to accept many more refugees and asylum applicants than it currently does. Moreover, with the Biden administration’s promises to widen legal avenues for asylum seekers and refugees, there is an increased likelihood that more Central American refugees can seek refuge in the United States, where they hope to build a better life.
– Willy Carlsen