Over the last few months, global TV networks have transmitted images of waves of people fleeing from Central America (CA). Many of them came so far as to risk their lives by trekking 3,700 km carrying children on their backs, crossing two to three borders illegally and fording torrential tropical rivers. These images de facto called attention to a phenomenon that is eradicated in CA, the causes of which bear strong economic and social implications.
The main destinations
In recent years, the flow of CA migrants that transit through Mexico has increased (Rodríguez Chávez, 2016). This migration wave has happened under conditions of extreme vulnerability and strain from considerable danger, especially in terms of organized human traffickers that attempt to extort money from those migrants that move along northbound routes. In 2015 alone (most recent available data), the total number of CA migrants moving north has been estimated at 417,000. Most of these came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and attempted to reach the US. In fact, between 2009 and 2017, US residents originally from CA had grown by more than 35%, amounting to more than 3.5 million people. Among these, the highest ratio is that of males and youngsters, with 28% of CA migrants in the US being under 20 and poorly educated. At the same time, about 87% of CA migrants are of working age, a percentage that is higher than in any other immigrant group in the US. Costa Rica is also a destination for CA migration, although it remains so to a smaller extent than the US. The country in fact last year received a great number of Nicaraguans, while Mexico was a recipient of Guatemalans. Still, Mexico remained a prime transit country for CA migration.
Main causes of migration
CA is experiencing a demographic transition from a regime of high mortality and high fertility rates to one where these are lowering. These changes result in decreasing population growth rates, which are currently expected to rise from 47.8 million people to a maximum of 72 million people in 2075. These rates in turn significantly modify regional age profiles, albeit showing considerable national differences. For instance, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua have younger populations than Costa Rica and Panama, while also exhibiting higher poverty rates.
Poverty is indeed a crucial driver, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala, where it affects about 70% of the overall population. Environmental or climatic factors are also playing an increasingly central role in increasing migration flows. In the past few decades, northern CA countries were in fact hit by hurricanes, earthquakes and drought, increasing the vulnerability of the population (especially in rural areas). The rural poor are the most vulnerable to economic, political and even environmental crises due to the very high levels of vulnerability of the agricultural sector. They represent 82% of the population in Honduras, 77% in Guatemala and 49% in El Salvador. Moreover, about 34% of the labor force in Guatemala and Honduras works in agriculture.
In addition, violence and insecurity are among the major drivers of migration. Homicide rates in Northern Central American countries (NCA), for instance, although moving in a downward trajectory, remain at high levels with El Salvador experiencing the highest rates (60 victims per 100,000 inhabitants), followed by Honduras (43 victims per 100,000 inhabitants). Femicide rates in northern CA countries are also extremely high, accounting for 87% of the overall rates in CA for 2017.
Family reunification and networks in transit and destination countries are also contributing factors, given that about 82% of migrants from NCA have relatives in the US.
Last, but no less important, countries of origin receive consistent financial flows (remittances) that, in most cases, are essential for the home economy and the balance of payment equilibrium. In 2016, remittances inflows back to CA exceeded US $18 billion, and were for the most part devoted to NCA. In particular, US $7.4 billion went to Guatemala, equaling 10.3% of its total GDP; US $4.5 billion to El Salvador or 16.6% of its total GDP, and US $3.8 to Honduras, equaling 18.2% of its total GDP.
Undoubtedly, high levels of poverty and vulnerability underline that the greater relative importance of remittances is not a condition of relief due to CA’s deep structural limitations. For instance, a weak and insufficient economic-productive base makes countries reliant on continuous flows of remittances. Furthermore, the limited ability to transform the economic base hinders a sustained and sustainable process of social development and productive transformation.
As internal and external mobility in NCA paints a well-known worrisome picture, responses from different cooperative frameworks have been adopted. Among others are proposals for a comprehensive development plan for CA, which is sponsored by the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC). These proposals were only recently forwarded to CA countries. The aim is to ensure that development goes hand-in-hand with social and environmental sustainability, and that a new corridor between NCA and Mexico will be able to contain the population.
 Rodríguez Chávez, Ernesto (2016), “Migración centroamericana en tránsito irregular por México: nuevas cifras y tendencias”, CANAMID Policy Brief Series, PB14, Central America - North America Migration Dialogue (CANAMID) Guadalajara, México.
 Canales, Alejandro y Martha Rojas (2018), “Panorama de la migración internacional en México y Centroamérica: Reunión Regional Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Expertas y Expertos en Migración Internacional preparatoria del Pacto Mundial para una Migración Segura, Ordenada y Regular”, Serie Población y Desarrollo No. 124, Santiago, Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL).
 United Nations (2017), World Population Prospects, The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), Population Division.
 CEPAL (Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe) (2018) Atlas de la migración en los países del norte de Centroamérica, Santiago de Chile, CEPAL, LC/PUB.2018/23.