The Americas are in the grip of their biggest migration crisis, as tens of thousands fleeing repression in Venezuela and Cuba add to the flow of people from Central and South America towards the US border, according to a top American official.
Ricardo Zúñiga, special envoy of President Joe Biden for the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, told the Financial Times that an “alarming” increase in authoritarianism and a failure by governments to improve lives lay behind the record human displacement.
“We have never seen anything of this scale in the Americas,” said Zúñiga, a Honduras-born US career diplomat who is a principal deputy assistant of state at the state department. “We have never had . . . such a large movement of people across the whole region at the same time . . . it’s no longer [just] movement from Latin America to the United States. Everyone is dealing with this everywhere.”
The number of migrants being detained at the US border with Mexico continues to break records, creating a major political problem for the Biden administration before the midterm elections in November.
About 2.35 mn migrants were apprehended in the 12 months to the end of July, an increase of 63 per cent on the same period a year earlier, according to US Customs and Border Protection figures.
Only just over half of migrants stopped in the month of July came from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, the traditional source of people heading for the US. Large numbers of Venezuelans, Cubans, Colombians and Nicaraguans were also present, as well as smaller numbers of Brazilians, Haitians and Ecuadoreans.
Zúñiga said Venezuela’s deep political and economic crisis remained the biggest single driver of migration in the Americas. More than 6.8 mn Venezuelans have fled a collapsing economy and an increasingly authoritarian government, a number comparable to the refugee exodus from Syria’s civil war. Many have sought refuge in other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
But Zúñiga also pointed to economic damage in the region from the coronavirus pandemic and to a “loss of hope” by Cubans after the authorities cracked down on protests there last year. More than 175,000 Cuban migrants were apprehended in the US in the 10 months to the end of July, the fastest rate of migration since the 1959 revolution.
“Those July 2021 demonstrations shocked the Cuban leadership,” Zúñiga said. “But the way they’ve responded is by basically improving their capacity to repress demonstrations.”
Another factor behind the surge in numbers is that criminal gangs have spotted a profitable opportunity to traffic migrants to the US. “Migrant smuggling was always a sideline but for some [gangs] it’s now a main line,” said Zúñiga. “There’s so much money involved.”
The Biden administration launched a $4bn four-year strategy in July 2021 to address the root causes of migration in Central America but says the problems are so deep they will take many years to resolve.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said the “root causes” strategy was important but it focused only on Central America. In Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, “the US has no ability to return people [because there are no deportation flights] so there’s a huge incentive for people to leave, but there’s also little stopping them from trying to reach the United States, except for the fear of what could happen to. you along the journey”.
In Central America, economic growth this year is expected to be well above the regional average. Selee said most families already had a relative inside the US and now had the means to leave, so “it’s often a better investment to migrate than to invest what you have where you live”.
“We’re very aware of the limits on any outside actor to change centuries of political, economic and social patterns,” Zúñiga said. “The fact remains that in Central America, just like in the rest of the region, the main issues revolve around inequality and exclusion and very low confidence on the part of the population that conditions are going to improve.”
Despite the Biden administration’s focus on democracy and human rights, several central American nations have taken an increasingly authoritarian turn. In Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, attacks against independent media are increasing, opposition politicians are being targeted and the US has imposed sanctions on dozens of officials for alleged corruption.
“We know it’s this massive challenge and we know . . . that events have been pretty difficult,” Zúñiga said. “But . . . we’re very warned by what’s happened that things can get worse.”