Part I: Understanding the Crisis and Relevant Players in the Northern Triangle

By: Katherine Marshall

April 4, 2019

Religious Actors and Returning Migrants in the Northern Triangle

Background on the Crisis

The migration crisis is tightly linked to extraordinarily difficult political, social, and economic conditions in the Northern Triangle and to wide inequalities among countries. Facing constant threats of violence and poor economic prospects resulting from state failure, women, men, and children of all ages flee their home countries for Mexico and the United States in the hopes of a better future. They choose to risk their lives on the perilous migrant route and to face the uncertain reception in the United States. 

The turmoil in the Northern Triangle has roots in civil conflict in the second half of the twentieth century; a legacy is the violence and political instability that are central features of life in the region today. Homicides are among the world’s highest, economies are weak, and government institutions fail to assure basic services let alone progress on development goals. Despite substantial development, anti-corruption, and security programs, gangs and other criminal networks operate with impunity. In the United States’ fiscal year 2017, 54 percent of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border originated from the Northern Triangle. Related challenges arise when migrants are repatriated from the United States to Northern Triangle countries.

A Complex Religious Landscape Shapes Religious Actors and Action

Both in Northern Triangle countries and along the migrant route, a mosaic of civil society organizations provides crucial support to individuals and communities as they seek refuge in the region and along migration paths. Alongside strictly humanitarian support, they work to address root causes of violence and lack of economic opportunities in the region. A quite diverse and sometimes contentious religious landscape that includes Catholics and Protestants has given rise to this wide range of active FIOs in the Northern Triangle. Some of the organizations are transnational in character with programs that operate on the national level, while many others are grounded in local communities. Together they provide crucial, if often somewhat isolated and uncoordinated services to local populations. That includes both those who migrate and those who remain at home or are forced to return.

Religious involvement in social justice in Central America has deep roots. The Catholic Church, for example, has long served as a prominent advocate for human rights and protection of society’s most vulnerable populations. However, roles and actions are complicated by interreligious tensions, divisions within Catholic leadership and communities, competition linked to the rapid spread of evangelical Christianity, and historically complex relationships with the region’s large indigenous communities. 

The Catholic Church is an important force in the region, though less prominent than elsewhere in Latin America. During the time of conflict and civil war (second half of the twentieth century), lay Catholics and clergy were targets for torture and assassination, exemplified by the 1980 murder of San Salvador’s archbishop and now St. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a vocal opponent of state-driven violence. More recently, clergy numbers have declined and institutional roles of the Church are sometimes diffuse, though local laity sustain a popular Catholicism with theological and political clout. Social movements like the Salvadoran Frente Farabundo Martí Liberación Nacional (FMLN) have transformed parts of the Catholic Church from “conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights.” A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed that half of the populations of El Salvador and Guatemala and 46 percent in Honduras identified as Catholic.

The 1960s saw a marked rise of Protestantism, specifically Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism. Central America is now one of the most Protestant regions in Latin America. North American missionaries saw their action as an alternative to communism following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, with new kinds of evangelization and a new receptivity among Central Americans to religious options besides Roman Catholicism. A combination of intense proselytization efforts and a population base increasingly open to change with the revolutionary movements has transformed the region. 

Gaps in Migrant Repatriation 

A significant dimension of migrant and refugee challenges involves the forced return of migrants to the Northern Triangle. Official state-run programs to support them are limited, though in theory a variety of various programs operate “basic reception programs…[to] meet migrants at bus or airport reception centers and provide services such as food, transportation, emergency lodging, and help in terms of contacting family members.” These basic reception programs in Honduras and El Salvador were severely lacking in terms of scope and scale, “welcoming [returned migrants] in nice-looking buildings and registering them as statistics, but failing to recognize their rights, urgent needs, and potential to contribute to society.” 

Overall state policies on repatriation are weak. The Latin American Working Group describes Salvadoran and Honduran government efforts as “an alphabet soup of a few, small government programs meant to support deported migrants but no actual, comprehensive policies that holistically address the issue.” Difficulties facing repatriation programs include insufficient funding and barriers that make it difficult to access and maintain accurate contact information of returned migrants who pass through repatriation centers following deportation. Long-term support for returned migrants is limited and efforts to improve data and statistics on the demographics and needs of deported populations are thwarted. When repatriation programs fail to meet basic needs of those who leave repatriation centers, returned migrants often decide to migrate again and to face the dangers of the migrant route.

Read part two of this series to learn more about how FIOs and NGOs are working to fill these gaps, their general strengths in providing services, and exemplary FIO-run programs.

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