New study reveals factors that drive migrants to leave Central America’s Northern Triangle

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A comprehensive study found that most migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala originate from just 60 municipalities, across which the specific factors that push them to leave and the solutions to abate those factors differ greatly, Creative Associates International announced today.

In one of the most in-depth analyses to date of local factors — based on extensive data mining, statistical analysis and a 2,400-person survey conducted in February and March — Creative is able to distinguish the different triggers of migration in each municipality, as well as paint a general portrait of potential migrants in the Northern Triangle.

“Creative’s study allows us to make data-driven conclusions about today’s migration trends from the Northern Triangle and the best ways to address unique local drivers,” says Pablo Maldonado, Creative’s Chief Operating Officer.

The study, called “Saliendo Adelante: Why migrants risk it all,” investigates a range of factors, including household income, victimization, transnational ties and more, and how they combine to drive people from their homes.

These are a few of the topline findings of the report:

  • Intention to migrate: At the national level, Creative’s study revealed that 32 percent of Hondurans intend to migrate, while 24 percent of Salvadorans intend to, followed by 18 percent of Guatemalans.
  • Economics: Of the survey respondents in Guatemala who said they intend to migrate, 71 percent cited economic concerns as their primary motivation. In all three countries, a person with a household income of $200 to $400 a month who cannot make ends meet is 25 percent more likely to consider migrating. Overall, more than one-third of survey respondents reported household earnings under the $400 a month line and said they could not make ends meet.
  • Victimization: Regionally, having been a victim of a crime or having a family member or someone else close to you who has been makes an individual 50 percent more likely to consider migrating. In Honduras, for example, nearly one-third of survey respondents who have considered migrating have had a family member or close friend murdered.
  • Youth: On average across the three countries, 36.7 percent of youth intend to migrate. In fact, respondents 18 to 29 years old are more than twice as likely to consider migrating than adults aged 30 and older. The results from Honduras are particularly stark: Nearly 52 percent of young women surveyed plan to migrate, along with 40.7 percent of young men surveyed.
  • Transnational ties: Transnational ties – defined here as existence of family in the U.S., receipt of remittances, and prior migration to the U.S. – is a pull factor in the migration equation, but it is far less impactful than economics and victimization. Only 3 percent of survey respondents cited reuniting with relatives as their primary reason for wanting to migrate. 

Saliendo Adelante,” the title of the study, was inspired by a Spanish phrase that connotes a feeling of resilience and a desire to move forward in life.

Creative’s Maldonado says the development organization undertook the in-depth research to better understand the specific determinants that shape a person’s decision to make the oftentimes dangerous journey. This study is not connected with any Creative project or donor in the region.

“This study builds on Creative’s decades of development experience and deep roots in the region,” says Maldonado. “As an implementer of community-focused programs, we knew there were differences among the three countries, and even within the same country. This gives policymakers and implementers like us the research and data to make smart, effective decisions when trying to reduce irregular migration.”

Local strategies required

Creative’s extensive research provides insight into how the drivers of migration differ across municipalities — even within the same country — and how programs should be developed and implemented in the region.

“If governments want to curb irregular migration, they need to develop strategies that address the idiomatic impetus in these 60 municipalities,” says Maldonado. “To use a public health analogy, the migration solution requires the right medicine in the right dosage in the right location.”

In Honduras, for example, Creative’s research identified 12 municipalities that account for most irregular migration.

In-person surveys by Creative in Honduras found that while the majority of those who intend to migrate cite economic concerns as their main reason for wanting to leave, these pressures combine with victimization from crime and violence, transnational ties and other factors.

In the coastal city of La Ceiba, for example, 52 percent of households report having an income under $400 a month and being unable to make ends meet, two times more than in the capital of Tegucigalpa. Meanwhile, 63 percent of Tegucigalpa residents have been robbed or know someone who has been, compared to 35 percent in La Ceiba. Both cities exhibit similar rates of irregular migration, thus having a more granular understanding of the local level migration drivers can lead to more targeted interventions.

Escaping economic insecurity

Economic concerns are by far the most significant driving factor for migrants from the Northern Triangle.

To use a public health analogy, the migration solution requires the right medicine in the right dosage in the right location.”

Pablo Maldonado, Creative's COO

The study showed that economic concerns — namely unemployment, household earnings from $200 to $400 per month and not being able to make ends meet, and a pessimistic economic outlook — are the primary statistically significant migration determinants for 71 percent of Guatemalans who intend to migrate, 67 percent of Hondurans who intend to and 50 percent of Salvadorans who do.

“We know that across the region, even when a household is facing a myriad of other issues, economic factors are often the underlying motivation behind migration,” says Rene Leon, Creative’s Economic Growth Senior Associate. “With the study, however, we have been able to pinpoint the specific determinants triggering migration decisions, and we can tailor our development programs to address them on a local level.”

By looking closely at the local data, Leon says, the study can identify the municipalities in which unemployment is a stronger push factor for migration. In Guatemala City, for example, 16 percent of those who have considered migrating are unemployed, compared to just 5 percent who have not considered migrating but are unemployed. In Guatemala, being unemployed almost doubles the likelihood of a person migrating.

Fleeing victimization

Across the Northern Triangle, and particularly in high-migration, urban municipalities, residents are coping with significant levels of victimization.

Creative’s study found that victimization — personal exposure to homicide, robbery, extortion and violence against women — is the primary driver of migration for 38 percent of Salvadorans, 18 percent of Hondurans and 14 percent of Guatemalans. 

“In many high-migration municipalities, crime and violence have become part of the daily reality, forcing many people to leave their communities in search of safety,” says Enrique Roig, Director of Citizen Security at Creative.

With its local-level data, the study shows which specific aspects of victimization have the strongest influence on one’s decision to migrate in surveyed municipalities.

In San Salvador, for example, nearly a quarter of those who have considered migrating have been extorted, compared to 11 percent of people who have not considered migrating but have been extorted. Seventy percent of the country’s extortions occur in high-migration municipalities.

The data behind transnational ties

With more than 20 percent of income for the region’s households coming from remittances, the study carefully examined the influence of transnational ties on the decision to migrate, which was defined as the existence of family in the U.S., receipt of remittances and prior migration to the United States.

Transnational ties proved to play an important role in migration decision making, although they are far less impactful than economics and victimization. While nearly two-thirds of survey respondents have a relative living abroad, and 75 percent of those relatives have lived in the U.S. for 10 years or more, only 3 percent of survey respondents cited reuniting with relatives as their primary reason for migration. 

Analysis shows that simply having a family member in the United States is not a statistically significant determining factor between those who intend to migrate and those who do not, despite the large number of people who reported family ties. 

As Creative’s Salvador Stadthagen, Director of Latin America and Caribbean Strategy explains: “While economics and victimization provide the push, transnational ties are the pull that open the door a little wider.”

To read more about the study, explore the data and hear migrants’ stories, visit:

For media inquiries, please contact Michael J. Zamba, Creative’s Senior Director of Communications at

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