The number of people in Latin America who have been forced to flee their homes is low compared to many other regions of the world.
Some outsiders see the continent’s refugee challenges as marginal and parochial, and its laws and institutions for refugees as well-established and settled.
Yet below the surface, all is in flux, as hot spots of violent criminality across the region provoke new and acute displacement crises, with regional and global implications.
Crime as the New Frame of Reference
Under Latin America’s military dictatorships of the 1960s and 70s and political conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s, forced migration revolved around the axis of Cold War confrontations.
Today, organized crime is the thread connecting displacement crises in the region, reflecting trends in society, economy and violence across Latin America.
Territorial gang control and confrontations help drive extensive displacement and refugee flows from urban zones of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and on a smaller scale in Brazil and Mexico. Cartel disputes over routes and businesses have apparently contributed to significant displacement in Mexico and across its northern border.
“New” criminal groups in the Colombian conflict have driven large new displacement in Colombia, as well as refugee flows along its borders. State-affiliated political “colectivos” that increasingly also act as organized criminal groups contribute to emerging displacement trends in Venezuelan cities. Powerful and predatory criminal actors in anarchic and disordered contexts, for example in urban zones in Haiti, created both internal and external displacement.
Meanwhile, the involvement of organized crime in disputes over lands, development projects and mining factor in the displacement of rural and indigenous communities in many Latin American countries.
Despite its diversity of forms, there are important parallels in the ways that organized crime drives forced migration in several of these contexts.
Organized crime is not only a regional concern in its own right, but also intersects powerfully with other drivers of forced migration in Latin America today, such as conflict, development and the environment. It is by no means the only factor driving forced migration in the region, but it may now be the main frame of reference.
Moving Beyond a Cold War Response
Yet Latin America’s refugee system, developed in the Cold War era, is still catching up with this new reality.
The mass displacement unleashed by the Cold War in Latin America was the impetus for most countries in the region to endorse the global refugee regime and develop their own domestic refugee laws, policies and institutions.
Since then, the intra-regional and highly political character of most refugee flows – largely from Colombia – and the comparatively tiny number of other refugee movements in or to the region has perpetuated Cold War notions about who is a refugee.
Under this conception, “deserving” forced migrants are those fleeing political conflicts or confrontations. This helped to complicate initial efforts to address the new wave of forced migration linked to organized crime.
Yet despite the formalistic approach of most Latin American refugee offices, the recognition rate for refugee claims based on a fear of organized criminal violence has increased in line with the escalation in asylum-seekers fleeing gangs in Central America.
Latin America is thus leading the world in acknowledging that criminal violence can, in some circumstances, qualify the victims as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention or the Latin American expanded refugee definition in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration.
The eligibility guidelines by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) on El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia have facilitated this shift. Even so, there remains a need to more carefully articulate how and when fleeing criminal violence legally qualifies as (imputed) “political opinion” under the Refugee Convention.
Cold War conceptions have proved more difficult to surmount in countries with substantial levels of internal displacement. For instance, in El Salvador, the Spanish term for internally displaced persons (IDPs) – “desplazados” – has strong civil war connotations that the government and others see as irrelevant or undesirable today, undermining efforts to recognize the country’s IDP problem.
Similarly, despite judicial orders to the contrary, Colombian officials have sometimes refused to register IDPs displaced by criminal groups due to the perception that they do not qualify as fleeing “conflict.”
Despite these challenges, important advances are beginning to take shape. UNHCR and other key actors are scaling up humanitarian activities for IDPs fleeing criminal violence, particularly in Central America. Honduras has already created an institution for responding to IDPs and other scoping studies are underway elsewhere.
Displacement and Reparations
In some countries, the framework for responding to such IDPs revolves around a concept of reparation for victims. This is an innovative approach, but will it be effective?
For example, since 2011 most attention on IDPs in Colombia comes through the government’s new reparations framework. This was innovative in several ways: It started individual and collective reparations whilst the conflict was still ongoing, and covered external and internal displacement among the acts for which reparation is due. Predictably, the vast majority of registered victims are IDPs.
Yet it remains to be seen whether Colombia’s framing IDPs as “victims of conflict” is flexible enough to deal with the new challenges of displacement by organized crime groups in the country.
Similarly, in Mexico, the little attention that exists for IDPs fleeing criminal violence is part of a wider framework for the reparation of victims. There are some important differences to the approach in Colombia. Whilst reparations are due to victims of crime, the penal law origins of the Mexican framework suggest that it does not go beyond that to offer a humanitarian response to displaced populations. Mexico and other nations will need to address the question of what scale or impact of displacement requires a humanitarian crisis response?
To answer these and other profound questions raised by forced migration in Latin America, we need much more research on the links between crime and forced migration. Whereas the role of criminal groups in facilitating migration via smuggling and preying on migrants en route is well-documented, we are only beginning to analyze their role in forcing migration. We have much left to learn in order to join the dots across Latin America and beyond.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any particular institution or the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.