El Salvador Has a Historic Opportunity to Address Internal Displacement

Some 300,000 Salvadorans were displaced last year, and many remain on the run from gang violence. Elizabeth Ferris and Walter Kalin explain why a new draft law on internal displacement in El Salvador is a chance to help them and provide a model for other countries.

Written by Elizabeth Ferris, Walter Kalin Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
The Romero Community in El Salvador houses many Salvadorans who have been displaced by war or natural disasters.Christine Bolanos

Violence by criminal gangs in El Salvador has forced hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to abandon their homes.

Record numbers have made the long journey through Central America and Mexico to ask for protection on the U.S. border. But far larger numbers are displaced within the borders of their own country, some forced to move multiple times in search of safety from brutal gang violence.

Under international law, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the rights of the displaced are upheld. Yet until now El Salvador has had no national law or policy on internal displacement.

Recently, however, a draft law on internally displaced persons (IDPs) has been introduced in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, offering the government an opportunity to take responsibility for ensuring the rights of IDPs.

Several recent reports have underscored the terrible toll that internal displacement takes on Salvadorans fleeing for their lives as a result of criminal gangs. While there has been a fair amount of media coverage about Salvadorans and others from Central America’s notorious Northern Triangle showing up on the U.S.-Mexican border, the situation of those displaced within the borders of their country is much less visible.

A recent report by Salvadoran human rights group Cristosal called “Visibilizar lo Invisible” – Making the Invisible Visible – provides clear and compelling evidence about how and why people abandon their homes: 96 percent of those interviewed cited gangs as the reason for their displacement.

Another new report from the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that almost 300,000 Salvadorans have become newly displaced in the past year. More than a quarter of them moved twice or more.

Government estimates are much lower. Statistics on internal displacement are always difficult but particularly so when people are afraid to report to the police or other authorities. According to Cristosal, 68 percent of those displaced did not report their displacement because they were afraid of repercussions from the perpetrators who had forced them from their homes.

The violence takes the form of extortion, threats, kidnappings and murder. The IDMC study found that targeted threats create a continuum of risk and that individuals make highly personal decisions about where to seek safety. A safe place for one person may be very dangerous for others.

But internal displacement is often ineffective – criminal gangs have a way of tracking down individuals trying to escape, particularly when they are perceived to have betrayed the gangs. Civil society organizations provide some support to IDPs but the lack of safe places and inadequate government support, and the fact that IDPs usually perceive it to be safer to remain invisible than to seek assistance, limits their possibilities.

The Salvadoran government has created a mechanism for supporting victims in key locations around the country and has established specialized institutions for the protection of vulnerable groups. But as Noah Bullock, the executive director of Cristosal, points out, until now there has been no acknowledgment by the government of the scale of internal displacement in the country, nor development of a specific policy to address it.

In a report on her 2017 visit to El Salvador, the special rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, underscored that “recognition of the problem of internal displacement must be rapidly followed by legal, policy and institutional frameworks for the protection of internally displaced persons.”

In July 2018, a landmark judgment by the country’s Constitutional Court found the failure to protect IDPs within the country to be an unconstitutional state of affairs. The judgment was in response to a case filed by IDPs, in which they reported being threatened and attacked by criminal gangs and consequently being displaced several times. Although they had reported the threats and attacks to the authorities on multiple occasions, the government did not protect them.

In its ruling, the court not only called for an immediate and timely investigation of the crimes committed against these people, but also ordered the government to develop and implement policies to prevent forced displacement and to protect those who have been displaced. The judgment also compels new legislation to incorporate the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Finally, the judgment also orders the president to include assistance to those displaced by criminal gangs in the annual budget.

El Salvador now has a historic opportunity not only to implement the court’s ruling but to develop a law and an institutional mechanism to protect the rights of IDPs. In our work with governments facing large-scale internal displacement, such as in Colombia, Uganda and Georgia, we have seen the positive impact of national laws and policies for IDPs. While implementation of laws and policies is almost always imperfect, they provide a framework for action – and accountability. Enacting laws and policies is also a sign of a government’s commitment to protect its citizens, including those who are internally displaced.

As a Brookings-Bern study comparing 15 governments’ response to IDPs found, an “effective response to displacement almost always requires legislative action, typically because current laws pose unintended obstacles to the ability of IDPs to realize their rights or because they do not, on their own, provide a sufficient basis for addressing the needs of IDPs.”

Ideally a law should be comprehensive, applicable to those displaced for multiple reasons and addressing all phases of displacement. Other important steps include designating an institutional focal point with sufficient political clout to provide meaningful protection and assistance to people who have been internally displaced and devoting adequate financial and human resources to address internal displacement.

There are many strong components of the draft Salvadoran law, including its foundation in the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and its strong emphasis on protecting the rights of IDPs at all stages of displacement. It applies to those displaced by actions taken by the state as well as by non-state actors. It defines the obligations of state institutions and establishes an inter-institutional mechanism to coordinate governmental actions in support of IDPs, including activities to prevent, respond to and resolve internal displacement.

Addressing the needs and protecting the rights of several hundred thousand Salvadorans fleeing criminal gangs is a large undertaking. But adopting a strong law incorporating the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement would be a strong signal of the Salvadoran government’s willingness to exercise its responsibility to protect all of its citizens.

Moreover, adopting the new law would also serve as a model for other countries in Central America who are struggling to respond to large-scale displacement. In this 20th anniversary year of the Guiding Principles, such an action might encourage governments in even more distant countries to do the right thing and develop and implement policies that protect the rights of those displaced.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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