In the Americas, providing opportunity for refugees is win for the region

Central American migrants enter El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico in April.
Central American migrants enter El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico in April. Getty Images

When Patricia and her two children fled gang violence in El Salvador in 2015, they reached Mexico with little else but hope. Now, three years later, she is working in a busy diner in the sprawling Mexican capital, serving meals to appreciative lunchtime customers.

The diner employs other cooks and servers like Patricia who have fled insecurity in the north of Central America. Allowed to earn a living wage, put their children in schools and access health services, these refugees are able to live full and productive lives, while contributing to the countries that host them.

With a record 65.6 million people worldwide now driven from their homes by wars and persecution, allowing refugees to flourish is a win-win proposition. The resilience of Patricia and her family is a small victory that can and should be repeated millions of times over — and Mexico and five countries in Central America are showing the way on how to support and foster the success of refugees.

As gang and other violence has driven more than 50,000 refugees from the north of Central America to seek safety abroad, the region embraced a new paradigm in refugee protection that seeks to find opportunity in crisis. And it is working.

By adopting a Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework at a conference in Honduras last year, the region has taken a new approach to addressing forced displacement in Central America.

The initiative, which UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency and its partners support, goes beyond simply keeping forcibly displaced people safe. It seeks to allow them to be more self-reliant and to integrate into the communities that welcome them while contributing to their host countries by paying taxes and even starting successful businesses.

The framework, known by its Spanish acronym, MIRPS, brings together refugees’ countries of origin, transit and destination to ensure a regional focus spanning national borders. This geographical breadth is complemented by a whole-of-society approach, welding together steps taken by governments, civil society, international organizations, the private sector, financial institutions and academics to ensure a truly comprehensive response to the dynamics of forced displacement in Central America and Mexico.

You can see it at work in Mexico and Guatemala, which I visited last year, where civil society groups, including the church and human-rights defenders, have risen to the occasion. They are present all along the main routes for individuals and families escaping violence, providing essential, life-saving services and support. When those who flee reach their destination, the framework facilitates access to the asylum system, minimizes the use of detention and ensures a fair and effective determination of the asylum claim.

It also looks to address the conditions that are causing displacement in countries of origin. This is a multi-faceted effort that includes improving security for people by strengthening institutions, as well as assisting governments in providing the kind of front-line protection that, when absent, leaves people with few options but to flee.

No one country can do this alone. Regional cooperation and shared responsibility together are the best way to generate success stories from these human tragedies.

The framework complements other regional initiatives, such as the Alliance for Prosperity Plan, a road map developed by the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It aims to sow the conditions for a more sustainable development model, offering citizens the opportunities and conditions to stay in their countries. USAID and other development actors have made initial financial contributions to this plan, but such investments need time and nurturing to bear fruit.

Central America has done a lot to help itself, but these countries deserve more international support. We are seeing too many examples of prevention gone wrong, of small investments not made that have led, down the road, to costly exercises in peacekeeping. Let this effort in the Americas be an example of international and regional cooperation done right — not politics gone wrong.

Filippo Grandi is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.