Hard Decisions: Migration’s Complex Calculus
Posted June 2021
Migration, at its core, is the result of millions of people making the decision to stay or to go. Each decision is deeply personal. It changes lives and rewrites futures. But when many people reach the same, often gut-wrenching decision to leave their ancestral homes and move across borders in high numbers, they are described as a “wave” or a “surge”— en masse, their humanity is obscured. By flattening every individual experience into one larger phenomenon, we lose sight of the complexity of each story.
Right now, thousands of Central American families are being forced to choose between staying in a country that no longer feels safe and leaving everything behind to make a dangerous, uncertain journey. Each decision is informed by shared experiences — violence, hunger, hopelessness — but no two situations are the same. It isn’t a choice anyone wants to make, and for far too many people, it isn’t a choice at all. Survival tips the scale: Go.
As we seek to better understand migration in our hemisphere and where we go from here, it is important to center those stories. Why are people leaving? What would help create the freedom to stay?
There are many answers to the first question.
Decades of violence — spurred by civil war, transnational gangs, and widespread domestic abuse — have created deep insecurity and a sense that nowhere is safe. Gender-based violence is some of the highest in the world and committed with impunity. Gangs recruit members, including children, by giving the choice to join or to face the consequences of resisting, which often means kidnapping, rape or murder. The violence is remarkable for both its reach and its brutality.
The impacts of climate change are intensifying, from massive hurricanes, to crop failure, to water shortages. In Indigenous communities in the Guatemalan highlands, where crops are failing and a disproportionate number of people are leaving, the chronic child malnutrition rate hovers around 70 percent — higher than any country in the world. COVID-19 brought another blow, doubling the number of people facing hunger in the country.
Extensive corruption ensures every government system serves the powerful and never the people, making it nearly impossible to create a better life and draining roughly $13 billion annually from the region’s economies — about five percent of the GDP. Corruption and tax evasion mean funding for social services are some of the lowest in the hemisphere. Politicians ensure they can retain and continue to abuse their power by dismantling international anti-corruption bodies, removing checks on executive actors, and persecuting human rights advocates.
The second question — how to overcome these challenges — is far harder to answer: there are no easy solutions. Creating lasting change will require deep partnership with the people of the region who are ready to lead the effort to build just, resilient and sustainable societies where their families can thrive. It will require bigger and bolder action: disrupting existing systems, leveraging more foreign policy tools, and making smart and sustained investments to benefit civil society, not corrupt political and economic elites. Ultimately, it will also require acknowledging that our hemisphere needs more flexible migration pathways so that people have more options when home is no longer a place they can stay.