Places of Refuge and Risk: Lessons from San Pedro Sula

Yolanda Zapata

Forced Migration Review, Issue 63, February 2020


The metropolitan area of San Pedro Sula hosts approximately 40 percent of Honduras’ IDPs, with the city itself hosting around 22 percent of IDPs. 81 percent of IDPs have been displaced from elsewhere in the city. IDPs tend to seek refuge in the most marginalized or lower-middle class areas of the city, characterized by limited access to basic rights and public services, and by high levels of violence (including restrictions on mobility, extortion, forced involvement of children and youth in criminal organizations, homicides and sexual violence).

Since 2016, UNHCR has been providing technical assistance to municipal authorities and communities for the development of displacement prevention and protection mechanisms. This has included working with municipal authorities to design methodologies and strategies that promote rapprochement and dialogue with high-risk communities and neighborhoods. Lessons learned include:

  • In contexts of urban violence, the time required can be doubled or even tripled by the security risks associated with the presence of organized criminal groups, the invisible nature of displacement and the normalization of violence.
  • Access to services is best achieved through investments that benefit the entire community.
  • Mapping and working with community actors who are not perceived as actively contesting the criminal structures and gangs (e.g. religious leaders, leaders of community development structures and social program volunteers) is key to establishing and preserving access.
  • It is important to support community structures and civil society organizations that provide services (e.g. church medical clinics, support programs for educational and youth community centers, nurseries and women’s networks).
  • Ensuring that community interventions are integrated into municipal processes and structures can help ensure greater sustainability.
  • It is critical to use area-based approaches that allow the design of responses that consider the specific spatial context, the needs of the population, and coordination with other local actors, including private sector actors.