The Mixed Motives of Unaccompanied Child Migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle

Matthew Lorenzen
University of Southern California

Credit: mdurson/Shutterstock

The Mixed Motives of Unaccompanied Child Migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle


A growing body of literature has argued that the distinction between forced and voluntary migration can be, in practice, unclear. This literature points out that each individual migrant may have mixed motives for migrating, including both forced and voluntary reasons. Few studies, however, have actually set out to analyze mixed-motive migration.

This paper examines the mixed-motive migration of unaccompanied minors from Central America’s Northern Triangle states (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), using data from a small 2016 survey carried out in 10 shelters for unaccompanied child migrants run by a Mexican government child welfare agency. Using this survey, the paper identifies the immigrating minor’s motives, which are oftentimes mixed, and details differences by nationality, gender, and age groups. Some of the key findings include:

  • Around one-third of the child migrants surveyed had mixed motives, including both forced and voluntary reasons for migrating.
  • Violence appears most often as a reason for migrating among minors with mixed motives, as opposed to the search for better opportunities, which appears more often as an exclusive motive.
  • Significant differences between the three nationalities are observed. Relatively few Guatemalan minors indicated violence as a motive, and few displayed mixed motives, as opposed to Hondurans, and especially Salvadorans.
  • The minors fleeing violence, searching for better opportunities, and indicating both motives at the same time were largely mature male adolescents.
  • The minors mentioning family reunification as their sole motive were predominantly girls and young children.

The results indicate that binary formulations regarding forced and voluntary migration are often inadequate. This has important implications, briefly addressed in the conclusions. These implications include:

  • the need for migration scholars to consider forced reasons for migrating in the context of mixed-motive migration;
  • the fact that mixed motives call into question the established, clear-cut categories that determine whether someone is worthy of humanitarian protection or not;
  • the need to have in-depth, attentive, and individual asylum screening because motives may be interconnected and entangled, and because forced reasons may be hidden behind voluntary motives; and
  • the need for a more flexible policy approach, so that immigration systems may be more inclusive of migrants with mixed motives.


Author Names

Matthew Lorenzen

Journal Journal on Migration and Human Security
Date of Publication 2017
Pages 744-767
DOI 10.1177/233150241700500402
Volume 2017
Issue Number 4