Nicaragua and Central America’s child migrant crisis

Photo Credit: Jennifer Whitney, New York Times

Photo Credit: Jennifer Whitney, New York Times

Over the past couple of weeks, worldwide attention has focused on the unhappy tales of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children currently flooding the southern border of the United States.

For their part, the press in Nicaragua has followed closely as the Obama administration formulates a governmental response to the issue, debating whether to expand capacity in detention centers or to tighten asylum laws in order to bar the entry of the children in the first place.

Observers in Nicaragua have also monitored the response of their Central American neighbors, as statesmen from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala meet to discuss ways to stem the outward flow of children and to urge U.S. policymakers to carry through immigration reform. Nicaraguans have also blasted conditions in those countries and sympathized with the plight of the children who risk their lives in order to escape persecution, violence, and poverty at home — former vice-president and celebrated writer Sergio Ramirez wrote this week that Latin America’s child-exporting countries face not a humanitarian crisis, but an ethical one.

What has been missed, however, is a reflection on how Nicaragua fits into the crisis. Local commentators haven’t paid much attention to the issue probably because Nicaragua doesn’t send nearly as many migrants to the United States as the northern Central American countries, with Manuel Orozco of the Inter-American Dialogue estimating that 6,566 Nicaraguans entered the U.S. in 2013, compared with nearly 40,000 Guatemalans. Nicaraguans in the U.S. are also a far less visible immigrant community than their Central American counterparts, representing in 2011 less than 1% of the population of hispanic origin in the country. Most of Nicaragua’s emigrants reside in Costa Rica, where they may make up nearly 10% of the country’s total population.

Nevertheless, the present migration crisis in the United States is relevant for Nicaragua in at least one surprising way. As migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador leave their countries in growing numbers, they’re increasingly looking at countries other than the United States as a destination. According to the most recent numbers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between 2008 and 2013 there was a staggering 712% increase in asylum requests made by Central American migrants in Mexico, Belize, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

In 2013, Mexico received the most requests by a predictably large margin, Costa Rica was the second-largest recipient (although it is unclear how many of their requests were lodged by Nicaraguans), and Nicaragua came in at third. Remarkably, Nicaragua witnessed a 240% increase in asylum seekers from 2012 to 2013 alone.

Graphic from Vox:

Graphic from Vox:

While some international news outlets have stopped to ask how the second-poorest country in Latin America has suddenly become a destination for refugees, these numbers have gone seemingly unreported in Nicaragua.

It remains to be seen how many of these asylum requests are typically approved, but regardless, it’s still worth asking why there has been no recognition of the issue either by the government or by humanitarian organizations. In absolute terms, the number of refugees apparently already in Nicaragua (as of January of this year, 189 with another 17 asylum-seekers waiting on their applications) might not immediately seem like an enormous problem, and the country has a long history of offering asylum to international refugees.

In fact, the National Assembly passed a law in 2008 guaranteeing the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. However, given the disproportional expansion in asylum requests over the past few years, if this trend continues, one must ask how a country where would roughly half of the citizenry would prefer to seek a better life elsewhere could possibly be a viable and sustainable destination for asylum-seekers from elsewhere, especially if the US government makes policies that further close its borders to Central Americans.

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