Migrants from three countries paid $2.2 billion trying to reach the US. Most of it went to smugglers
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Migrants from three countries paid $2.2 billion trying to reach the US. Most of it went to smugglers

Migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador spend $2.2 billion every year trying to reach the United States, and most of that money goes to smugglers, according to a new report.

The estimate of annual costs over the past five years, derived from surveys of thousands of households in those three Central American countries, paints a stark picture of the price of migration — and who’s profiting.

“That is an extreme amount of money,” MIT associate professor Sarah Williams said in a statement announcing the report’s release. “That $2.2 billion is all paid for by the migrants themselves, so the risks, both in terms of debt and personal risk, is borne by the migrant.”

The report — released this week by the Migration Policy Institute, the World Food Programme and the Civic Data Design Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — details motivations and costs of migration from the region.

Migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador traveling outside legal channels with smugglers pay about $1.7 billion annually, the report says. Migrants who travel outside legal channels from those countries in caravans or alone shell out about $230 million every year. And those migrating via legal pathways spend about $240 million.

The large numbers are particularly significant when you think about where else that money could go, such as funding for development and public works projects, says Ariel Ruiz, lead co-author of the report and a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

“It’s important not just to talk about the cost, but also to talk about the potential and opportunity that are being siphoned away,” he says.

Paying smugglers is the most costly way to migrate

In the past some researchers have arrived at even higher figures when estimating the size of the smuggling industry.

A 2018 UN report estimated the business of trying to get people into Mexico and the US illegally was worth about $4 billion annually.

To come up with the estimates included in this week’s report, Ruiz says researchers surveyed thousands of households in the region to determine the average amount paid in their attempts to migrate to the United States, then extrapolated based on the numbers of people who migrated from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

On average, those surveyed reported that migrants who paid smugglers spent about $7,500, including the cost of food and travel in addition to smugglers’ fees.

Migrants who traveled on their own or in caravans spent an average of $2,900 and those who used regular immigration channels, such as student visas or refugee resettlement, spent $4,500.

Some incur debt that can be difficult to pay off — especially if the migrants aren’t successful in reaching the United States, the report notes.

Why these migrants make the journey

Among the other findings:

• The vast majority (92%) surveyed said economic reasons were behind decisions to migrate. Climate disasters, violence and food insecurity were other factors noted. The amount spent on migration is “a lot of money,” Ruiz says, “but in perspective, the return on the investment is significant when so many of them are in such precarious conditions in their countries of origin.”

• More people are considering migration. In 2021, survey respondents in 43% of households said they were considering international migration, compared to 8% in 2019. But only a fraction of households — 3% — reported they were making concrete plans to migrate.

• Nearly a third of households (29%) reported receiving money from migrants abroad. They described that money as a lifeline used to meet subsistence costs and immediate expenses.

The report’s authors are urging governments to do more

The report’s release comes weeks after US officials announced they’d made more than 1.6 million arrests for unlawful crossings on the US-Mexico border over the past year, the highest annual number of apprehensions on record.

Organizations behind the report are recommending that governments do more to address the root causes of migration in Central America. That’s something US officials have said they’re working on, as have other leaders in the region.

But those efforts will take time, Ruiz says.

“To really address the root causes of migration will take years, if not a decade, to actually address everything that we’re seeing,” he says.

As a starting point, the report’s authors recommend expanding social protection programs and stimulating investments to increase economic opportunities in the region.

Another key recommendation: that the US and other countries offer more legal pathways for migrants from Central America.

If that happens, the report says, more of the money migrants spend would go to governments rather than clandestine smuggling networks.

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