The second-largest city in Honduras, San Pedro Sula, is the economic engine and the departure gate for thousands of Honduran migrants in recent years. There, many families are caught in a cycle of migration. Poverty and gang violence push them out and increasingly aggressive measures to stop them, driven by the United States government, scuttle their efforts and send them back.
The economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastation wrought by November’s hurricanes have only added to those driving forces. Word of a new administration in the US with a softer approach to migrants has raised hopes, too.
In his first weeks in office, US President Joe Biden signed nine executive orders reversing Trump measures related to family separation, border security and immigration. But fearing a surge in immigration, the administration also sent the message that little will change quickly for migrants arriving at the southern US border.
The Sula Valley, Honduras’s most agriculturally productive, was so heavily damaged by hurricanes Iota and Eta that international organisations have warned of a food crisis. The World Food Programme says three million Hondurans face food insecurity, six times higher than before the hurricanes. The dual hurricanes affected an estimated four million of 10 million Honduran people. The area is also Honduras’s hardest-hit by COVID-19 infections.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Dana Graber Ladek, head of the International Organization for Migration office in Mexico. “They’re suffering poverty, violence, the hurricanes, unemployment, domestic violence, and with that dream of a new [US] administration, of new opportunities, they’re going to try [to migrate] again and again.”
The last several attempted caravans have been foiled, first in Mexico and later in Guatemala, but the daily flow of migrants moved by smugglers continues and has shown signs of increasing. The hope and misinformation associated with the new US administration help that business too.
After the 2018 caravans and rising number of migrants at the US border in early 2019, the US government pressured Mexico and Central American countries to do more to slow migration across their territories. Numbers fell in the latter half of 2019 and Mexico and Guatemala effectively stopped caravans in 2020. In December, a caravan leaving San Pedro Sula did not even make it out of Honduras.
But the US has reported a rising number of encounters at the border, showing that beyond the caravans, the migration flow is increasing again.