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Report: Stemming rising migration from Central America calls for tackling immediate needs and root causes

  November 23, 2021

Poverty, food insecurity, climate shocks and violence pushed an estimated annual average of 378,000 Central Americans to migrate to the United States over the past five years, highlights a new report launched today. A high price is paid in human and economic costs, including an estimated $2.2 billion a year to travel regularly and irregularly.

Drawing from a unique survey of thousands of households in three Central American countries - El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a joint report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Civic Data Design Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Organization of American States (OAS), takes an in-depth look at the motivations and costs of migration.

Data, collected through face-to-face and online surveys, reveals an over five-fold increase, in just two years, in the percentage of people who considered migrating internationally – 43 percent in 2021 up from 8 percent in 2019. However, only a fraction - 3 percent - actually made concrete plans to migrate. Family separation and high costs associated with migrating were cited as deterrents.

Most migrants, 55 percent, were said to have hired a smuggler at an average cost of US$7,500 per person, while migrating through legal channels came at a cost of U$4,500. For 89 percent of people, the United States was their intended destination country.

The report sheds light on the linkages between food insecurity and migration from Central America, noting that food insecure people are three times more likely to make concrete plans to migrate than people who are not.

Food insecurity has seen a dramatic rise in Central America as the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and poverty continue to make it harder for families to feed themselves. As of October 2021, WFP estimates that the number of food insecure people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras grew three-fold to 6.4 million, from 2.2 million people in 2019.

In addition, migration flows were impacted by violence and insecurity, as well as climate-related shocks such as severe droughts in the Central American Dry Corridor and more frequent and stronger storms in the Atlantic. The devastating twin hurricanes that hit Central America in November 2020 are two major storms that contributed to the deterioration of living conditions for populations that were already vulnerable.

While highlighting the push factors of migration from Central America, the report also presents governments with a blueprint to address its root causes including initiatives that are linked to economic recovery, livelihoods, and food security for people who are most likely to migrate irregularly.

The expansion of national social protection programmes that help alleviate poverty and eradicate hunger for at-risk populations is key to stemming migration. For example, cash-based transfers are a lifeline for people in need, allowing families to meet their essential needs. School feeding programmes offer more than a plate of food. They support local agriculture and represent savings for poor families.
Furthermore, the report recommends economic development and investment initiatives that are tailored to community needs, giving people the option to seek opportunities at home. These include agricultural programmes for smallholder farmers to build resilience to climate shocks, diversify crops and boost production, as well as job training programmes for youth and women in rural and urban areas. Creating incentives for the diaspora to invest in public works in local communities, would amplify the impact of remittances beyond individual households.

To shift irregular migration to legal channels, the report recommends that the United States and other migrant-destination countries in the region expand legal pathways for Central Americans, for example by increasing access to temporary employment visas.


“We are seeing an exodus from Central America as hunger and despair force many to migrate in search of a better life. Families are being separated and communities are being destroyed as poverty, climate change and now COVID-19 have left many people feeling they have no choice but to head north,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley. “We know they would much rather stay home, so WFP’s programs are supporting sustainable livelihoods and offering people hope and opportunity in their own villages. But we need fresh funds to reach the millions planning to leave if they don’t get help soon”.

"We cannot expect different results from the same actions," said OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro. "We have been implementing migration containment policies for years, which have proven to be insufficient. Hence the great value of this study, which presents evidence that migration in most cases is a survival mechanism and not the voluntary exercise of a right. The study proves that the causes of migration are poverty, inequality, unemployment, food insecurity, violence, the impact of natural disasters and climate change: these require to be addressed in a decisive and comprehensive manner by States."

“Given the repeated cyclical patterns of rising Central American migration northward, it is clearly time for a strategy that moves beyond unilateral enforcement actions to recognize not only the drivers of migration but also the nuanced contexts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that smart investment and community strengthening policies should address,” said Andrew Selee, President, Migration Policy Institute.

Note to the editor:

High-resolution photos available here
Broadcast quality footage available here
Link to Executive Summary and Report here
MIT website:

For more information, please contact:

In Latin America

WFP: Norha Restrepo
Tel: +507 6671 5355
Email: [email protected]

OAS: Mónica Reyes
Email: [email protected]

In the U.S.

MPI: Michelle Mittelstadt
Tel: +1 202-266-1910 | (cell) +1- 202-361-2842
Email: [email protected]

Abby Abazorius
Tel: +1 617-253-2709
Email: [email protected]

Reference: E-103/21