Image: bus burned by gang members in El Salvador. ES James/

The level of violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in recent years has been second only to Syria – but unlike Syria, they are not countries at war. Criminal violence in the ‘northern triangle’, as this Central American region is called, is having a similar effect on the worldwide movement of refugees as the Syria conflict.

Now a new book, co-edited by Dr David James Cantor, director of the School of Advanced Study’s Refugee Law Initiative (RLI) with Nicolás Rodríguez Sema, a Colombian lawyer and RLI researcher, is raising the profile of this major humanitarian issue

The New Refugees: crime and forced displacement in Latin America is published by the School’s Institute of Latin American studies. It forms part of Dr Cantor’s research project, ‘Pushing the boundaries: new dynamics of forced migration and transnational responses in Latin America’, which was supported by a Future Research Leader grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Cantor’s chapter, ‘Gang violence as a cause of forced migration in the northern triangle of central America’, reveals alarming facts about the level of violence in these three countries. And it shows that the numbers of asylum seekers from this region have accelerated sharply over the past decade. Refugees are moving within their own countries, to nearby Latin American neighbours, and to the USA.

The research and resulting book aims to strengthen recognition of this issue and highlight that ‘The epidemic of violence in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is as deadly, or even more deadly, than many contemporary armed conflicts.’ In fact, there is already some international recognition which includes a specific framework, the 2014 ‘Brazil Declaration and its ten-year Plan of Action’, which has been adopted by governments in Latin America and Caribbean.

Dr Cantor’s groundbreaking work in this area has been internationally acclaimed. Below, he provides further insights into the research project, which took place between October 2012 and September 2015.

The ten chapters in this book look at the unprecedented rise in the number of Latin Americans who have been forced to flee their homes because of the activities of gangs and other organised criminal groups. How serious is the problem?
These groups represent the new face of organised violence in Latin America. The scale and severity of the violence, and the militarised response by governments, illustrates that the gravity of the situation in some countries is broadly comparable with that of the insurgency-based conflicts of earlier decades. The extraordinary levels of forced displacement in and from countries that are neither dictatorships nor (except in Colombia) at war is one important manifestation of the serious humanitarian consequences of this regional trend.

What pulled you into this area of research?
I had the privilege to work for many years on internal displacement in Colombia. It is increasingly clear that – alongside the political component of the conflict – organised violence in that country is also linked to dynamics of organised criminality and illegal economies. This continues to have a notable impact in terms of displacement today, even as the FARC-EP – one of the main conflict actors – is beginning to demobilise.

The question arose as to whether similar displacement dynamics were being produced by the violence exercised by organised criminal groups in other parts of Latin America. This led me to begin researching the link between organised criminal violence and forcible displacement in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America and in Mexico.

One of the book’s strengths is that it offers a look at the subject from a range of perspectives. Your chapter brings to life the scale of the violence in these turbulent societies in the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. How did you research it?
Most of the authors in the book faced a problem as we began researching this topic: whereas news sources and academic studies focus on the violence itself, much less published data exist on its impact in terms of displacement. In part, this is because – unlike the highly visible forms of displacement in conflicts like that of Syria – people who flee their homes due to criminal violence often try to pass unperceived. Moreover, at that time, some governments were reluctant to recognise displacement as a social or political issue.

As you can see from the different studies in the book, we all tried to find ways around this problem. In my case, this included undertaking field research in the Northern Triangle countries, interviewing a wide range of people in these societies who had observed or been affected by forced displacement. Despite the challenging security and political context, it was possible to gather sufficient data to begin describing this ‘new wave’ of displaced persons.

How does this movement of people interact with the global problem of people fleeing military conflict in their own countries – Syria for example – and what features do they share or otherwise?
My chapter, and a number of others in the book, point to strong similarities between the kind of violence and displacement produced by some organised criminal groups and that of non-State armed groups in a conflict. This, in turn, raises a number of important questions. For instance, on a practical level, can the policies and programmes developed by humanitarian agencies for displaced persons in conflict contexts such as Syria be applied equally to these ‘new’ scenarios of criminal violence? Conversely, do the findings of our studies on displacement caused by organised criminal groups have wider ramifications globally for understanding displacement in situations of armed conflict, especially in the many conflicts where non-State armed groups appear ever more linked to organised crime?

Are the victims from ‘the triangle’ treated differently to war refugees by the countries they flee to?
The studies in the book show that countries in the Americas are presently grappling with whether people fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle countries qualify as refugees under local or international refugee law frameworks. To help clarify the issue, over the last year, the UN refugee agency – UNHCR – has published guidelines on El Salvador and Honduras, in which it identifies profiles of individuals who may qualify for refugee status or for some other form of international protection. Parts of my own research, and that of our other contributors to the book, is cited in these UNHCR eligibility guidelines.

How can law and policy offer a humanitarian response to this crisis?
Presently, one of the greatest challenges in addressing the grave humanitarian situation in the Northern Triangle has been the lack of protection or assistance for displaced persons. The development of law and policy on this issue would provide a framework for governments – with the assistance of the international community – to begin to take the first practical steps towards mitigating this situation. One of the main contributions of the book – and the research that underpins it – has been to help raise the profile of this issue and allow policy-makers to begin to visualise not only the dimension and characteristics of the problem but also to begin thinking about possible protection responses.

How will Donald Trump’s Mexico wall project impact on the refugees from the triangle who are trying to make their way to the USA where there is a large diaspora?

As with much else in current US politics, the effect of the proposed extension of the wall on the southern border of the US is still somewhat difficult to read. Clearly, the longstanding existence of a physical barrier already on that border has not prevented the irregular entry of Central Americans and others. However, if the task is completed in the next few years and increased border force spending maintained, it could impact on the movement of refugees from the Northern Triangle in a number of ways.

Alongside the possibility of dissuading some from leaving their countries, it could equally serve to channel them towards other countries in the region – Mexico most obviously – or further abroad. Yet the overall ‘Trump effect’ depends on what other measures are taken by the US. For instance, the proposed increase in deportations to fragile countries in the Northern Triangle could further destabilise them and feed insecurity and criminal violence, thus prompting an increased outflow. By contrast, the apparently augmented US interest in combatting criminal groups in its ‘back yard’ might help to stabilise the situation in those countries or provide a basis for greater humanitarian support to displaced victims. Whatever the case, the importance of the issue of the ‘new refugees’ in the region will only grow.

Dr David James Cantor is the director of the Refugee Law Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, reader in human rights law and part-time advisor to the UNHCR Americas bureau. He has trained and advised governments across the globe, contributed to UNHCR and Nansen Initiative expert meetings, and runs a distance-learning MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies.