Mostly known as a transit country and a major sender of migrants to the United States, Mexico is not typically considered a hotspot for internal displacement. However, Mexico contains an alarming number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), who have historically been overshadowed and under-recognized.
As of December 2020, there were approximately 50,000 refugees in Mexico, primarily from Venezuela and Central America. Meanwhile, there are approximately 357,000 IDPs in Mexico — over seven times the number of refugees — and a dramatic increase in comparison to 2009, when there were only 8,000.
While a small number of these individuals are displaced due to the effects of climate change and natural disasters, the vast majority of Mexican IDPs are forced out of their homes due to conflict and violence stemming from organized crime groups fighting for control of lucrative territory. The state of Guerrero — rich in natural resources — for example, has the most IDPs in Mexico, and is referred to as the country’s “epicenter of organized crime” by the International Crisis Group.
Lockdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic escalated the conflict and tension between criminal organizations, and thus heightened internal displacement. For example, in Guerrero, 800 people were displaced by violence the first day after pandemic lockdown in March 2020.
Internal displacement creates compounding challenges for the victims in Mexico. Forced to uproot to a different community, IDPs face difficulty finding safe, affordable, alternative housing. If secure housing is unavailable, these individuals often end up staying in yet another unsafe location. Another challenge is securing employment in places where the labor market does not demand their skills. Some end up having to work for less money and with greater job instability. The integration of internally displaced, school-aged children is another hurdle. Schools are often insufficiently equipped to integrate new students who often require special educational and emotional support, which in turn increases the risk of these children dropping out.
Mexican IDPs are especially vulnerable as they do not fall under established international frameworks for refugee protection. Nonetheless, these individuals face the same threats and dangers as refugees.
According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, it is the responsibility of the host government — in this case, Mexico — to address the forced internal displacement of its citizens. This makes it difficult for international humanitarian organizations to intervene in what is a domestic responsibility. Indeed, Doctors without Borders has been the only international organization to assist IDPs in Mexico.
The Mexican state has struggled to get a handle on violence and security, as the López Obrador administration pursues a non-confrontation strategy with organized crime.
Mexico’s national migration and refugee agencies — the National Institute of Migration and the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, respectively — are heavily under-resourced, and under even greater strain as Mexico receives record-breaking numbers of applications of refugees and asylum seekers. If the agencies are unable to effectively perform their primary function of processing incoming migrants, then they are even less able to provide support for Mexico’s IDPs — who, until recently, were not nationally recognized as a vulnerable group in need of protection.
In 2019, the federal government responded favorably to demands for humanitarian support by IDPs in Chichihualco, Guerrero by providing food and alternative housing. Nonetheless, it has failed to address insecurity or reduce conflict in Guerrero or other states, which are the root drivers of internal displacement.
There are, however, some positive signs. In September 2020, the lower house of Mexico’s Congress passed the Law to Prevent, Attend to, and Repair Forced Internal Displacement. Among its objectives, the law proposes to: Recognize and guarantee the rights of IDPs; assign responsibility among federal and municipal organizations to generate durable solutions; create a national mechanism to explicitly address forced internal displacement; and establish a national registry for IDPs. The legislation, however, has not been passed by the Senate. If adopted, it will provide concrete evidence of the López Obrador administration’s commitment to take responsibility and implement the necessary protection frameworks. For it to be effective, however, implementation of the legislation will require resource commitments as well — a challenge under the president’s policy of “republican austerity“.
Beyond recognizing internal displacement as a national issue, the practical implementation of the proposed legislation must take specific actions. Key actions would be providing opportunities to place IDPs into safe homes in host communities, connecting IDPs to gainful employment opportunities and supporting education institutions’ efforts to better adapt to integrating displaced students and youth.
Although the Mexican government holds the greatest legal responsibility, the private sector and international organizations can and should play a significant role as well.
As the northern neighbor, the United States should be concerned by the crisis of internal displacement in Mexico. The border closure from the pandemic lockdowns removed the U.S. outlet for Mexican IDPs escaping violence and conflict. However, as we emerge from the pandemic, and as the reopening of the shared border is discussed, vulnerable IDPs are likely to seek safer conditions in the U.S. And while the Mexican government is most responsible for addressing internal displacement, the U.S. can and should consider Mexican IDPs when formulating policy for migrants seeking protection outside of Mexico.
An established legal framework and international support will likely improve conditions for Mexican IDPs in the short term. However, the phenomena of internal displacement will continue to grow if the security conditions that drive it are not efficiently addressed.
Andrew I. Rudman is the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former Foreign Service officer and director of the Office of NAFTA and Inter-American Affairs at the Commerce Department, he has worked on Mexico and U.S.-Mexican relations throughout his public and private sector careers. Rudman collaborated with Rachel Scalisi, a graduate research intern at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Mexico Institute, to create this piece. Twitter: @AndrewIRudman