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People flee Honduras by hundreds of thousands

Oliver Pieper
April 3, 2021

The number of people trying to cross into the United States from Mexico without authorization has risen steeply in recent months. Many of them are from Honduras.

A Texas trooper talks to Edith and son Harbin Ordonez, 4
State security confronts a mother and child from Honduras on the US side of the border Image: Adrees Latif/REUTERS

"You don't have life jackets? Nothing?" a man yells at US Border Patrol agents in a video shot on the Rio Grande in Texas on March 16, as people caught in the river scream for help. "They're drowning!" The Border Patrol agents do nothing. Two people's bodies would wash up on the banks of the river, which forms part of the  border between Mexico and the United States.

The video of their ordeal, broadcast on Honduran media, has shocked viewers in the Central American country — but not enough to prevent more than just a few of them from trying to make it to El Norte, the north: the United States. On average, about 300 people begin the 2,500-kilometer (1,500-mile) journey from the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, to the Mexican city of Matamoros every day, often carrying no more than the barest of necessities and traveling alone. There, they pay so-called coyotes thousands of dollars to smuggle them across the border.

Tens of thousands of the almost 10 million people who live in Honduras attempt to arrive in the United States every year, leaving behind a country plagued by corruption, the drug trade and brutal gangs. According to the Border Patrol, officers encountered 100,441 people making unauthorized crossings into the United States in February, the most since June 2019, when the figure was 104,311. Nearly 20,000 of those people were from Honduras.

UNDP Honduras representative Richard Barathe
Barathe says the challenges confronting Hondurans make migration necessary for someImage: Privat

"People flee, for the most part, for economic reasons," said Richard Barathe, who heads the office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Honduras. "One in three families reports that unemployment is their biggest problem. Many others lost their homes in the devastating hurricanes at the end of the year — meaning many had to chose between homelessness in Honduras and the risky trip into the United States on foot. Many chose the latter."

Barathe noted that Honduras produces only 0.1% of global CO2 emissions but is one of the countries hardest hit by climate change, which has intensified the effects of hurricanes, tropical storms and droughts.

'The right time'?

Honduras has some of the most pronounced economic inequality in Latin America. In 2019, 52% of citizens lived below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.

Barathe is working tirelessly to help improve the country's negative image. He points out that the murder rate has dropped from over 86 per 100,000 population to 43.6 from 2012 to 2019.

USA: Migrant drama at the southern border

The announcement by President Joe Biden that the United States would pursue a more humane migration policy had not necessarily brought more Hondurans to the border, Barathe said. "Biden put out the word telling people not to come to the US and to stay home and also said that, in the fight against illegal migration, he would support countries such as Honduras," Barathe said. "But, at the same time, the coyotes are broadcasting on social media the false information that now is the right time to flee."

Women increasingly emigrate

Ana Ortega works with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and also advises Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation on migration issues. "When we're looking at Honduras, we're not looking at voluntary emigration but rather a kind of forced displacement, brought on by poverty, inequality and violence," she said.

Ana Ortega
"Migration is sort of a life strategy for many families," Ortega saysImage: Privat

This violence is increasingly inflicted on women, with women or girls killed almost daily in Honduras. Of the 800,000 Hondurans who fled north in 2019, 470,000 of them were women, reversing a previous male-dominated trend. "That's why we're talking about the feminization of migration. On the one hand it's the violence and on the other hand women have taken over the role of the main provider for their families," she said.

Roughly 80% of therm head for the United States. Last year Hondurans in the United States transferred more than $5 billion dollars in remittances, or "remesas," back to family members in Honduras. That's about one-fifth of the country's GDP. "Honduras wouldn't survive without remesas, and for the last 30 years they've essentially replaced the state," Ortega said. "Migration is sort of a life strategy for many families, and the economy would fall apart without remesas."

US pushing border controls further south

The authorities have made it harder and harder for people to emigrate. First the US put pressure on neighboring countries so that migrants would be stopped on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. And there are now tougher border checks at the border between Guatemala and Honduras, which makes the journey into the US all the more complicated.

"The governments should improve the living conditions of the people here so they want to stay," Ortega said. "But the only thing they can think of are warnings to migrants about the dangers of migrating. Like they didn't know that already."

Pictures of drowning Hondurans and US border officials doing nothing to intercede may scare people for a while, but won't likely serve as a preventative for long. Ortega, who views herself as one of the biggest critics of the US's migration policy, said there was plenty of criticism to go around: "With what moral authority can we demand that Americans on the border respect human rights when we in our own country don't?"

This article has been adapted from German.

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