Refugees: Caught Between Violence and Persecution

By  |  19 / May / 2017

This was a different kind of Easter celebration. On April 9, the Viacrucis de Refugiados 2017 set out on its calvary—in this case a journey from Mexico’s southern border northward along the migrant route. Convened by the organization “People without borders” headed by the activist Irineo Mujica, the journey actually started in Tecún Umán, Guatemala.

This viacrucis, or Stations of the Cross, was made up of about 300 migrants, including women and children, who traveled through Mexico, ending up in Mexico City. According to one of its communiqués, its fundamental purpose is “to escape the southern border, which has condemned many people without papers to precarious work, discrimination and the absence of state protection.”

Viacrucis participants speak to the magnitude of the refugee crisis in Central America, a crisis in which people are displaced from their lands and their homes by two types of extreme violence. The first is structural, whereby the most vulnerable populations, primarily Indigenous and Afro-descendant, are stripped of what little they have by megaprojects, mining, tourism, hydroelectric dams, etc. They are frequently left with no viable options for survival.

The second is the criminal violence they face constantly, threatening their lives. The extreme deterioration of living conditions in the countries of the Central American Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, has caused the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing not only the cruelty of poverty, but the threat of death from organized crime.

The relevance of this viacrucis isn’t hard to see. They have highlighted the great difficulty people face while attempting to obtain the documents necessary to give them refugee status. They face the excessive waiting times, and most applicants remain stranded, surviving precariously in the border towns until their resources and patience are exhausted – at least 30% give up on the process and continue on their way.

As usual, Mexico has responded with too little, too late. The Law on Refugees and Complementary Protection establishes in article 13 that refugee status will be conferred to any foreigner who is in national territory, under the following assumptions stated in the second and third sections of the law:

  1. That they have fled their country of origin because their life, security or freedom have been threatened by widespread violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, violation of human rights or other circumstances that have seriously disrupted public order, and

III. That due to circumstances that have arisen in their country of origin or as a result of activities carried out during your stay in the national territory, they have legitimate fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, gender, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group.

In the 1980s, following the arrival of 46,000 Guatemalans on our southern border as a result of that country’s armed conflict, Mexico created the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) to “study the problems and needs of the refugee population, and provide protection against repatriation and assistance after recognition of refugee status. ” In 1996, when the armed conflict in Guatemala came to an end, in keeping with to our tradition as a country of refuge, the government of Mexico announced a new provision that offered refugees the possibility of returning to their country or naturalizing as a Mexican citizen and staying permanently stay in Mexico. Additionally, they implemented a program of integration and voluntary repatriation, based on the principle of “No Return.”

The current situation bears no resemblance to that of Mexico in the 1980s. We are no longer a country of refuge, and there is little recognition that a large number of Central Americans deserve to be classified as refugees in Mexico; COMAR’s statistics reflect an agency that has neither the staff, the resources, nor the will to fulfill its mission. In 2015, COMAR received 3,423 requests, of which only 929 were approved. Meanwhile, there is an unmistakable trend towards a substantial increase in the number of requests received. Between November 2016 and March 2017, 5,421 asylum applications were submitted, in comparison to 2,148 during the same period of 2015-2016. Both statistics and testimony indicate that Mexico continues to deny a large number of requests for refugee status, while detention and deportation numbers have increased since the implementation of Plan Frontera Sur and now exceed deportation figures from the United States. Not only does this deny the rights of refugees within Mexico, but also prevents them from arriving in the United States to request asylum there.

In this context, migrants in transit through Mexico and refugee applicants face a bleak outlook, one that the countries involved have barely lifted a finger to address. On July 6 and 7, 2016, the “Roundtable on Protection Needs in the Northern Triangle of Central America” was held in San José, organized by UNHCR and the Organization of American States, with the participation of nine countries from North America and Central America, including Mexico. National human rights institutions, civil society organizations and academia also participated, and representatives of United Nations agencies, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Red Cross.

The participants agreed on a series of responses included in the document: The San Jose Declaration of Action. The declaration includes the following principles, among others:

* Ensure access to national territory and improve reception mechanisms for asylum seekers and refugees in recognition of the growing number of people fleeing affected Central American countries.

* Strengthen opportunities for self-reliance and local integration of refugees, including investing in development funds,

* Improve regional cooperation and partnerships through shared responsibility, including increased engagement by civil society organizations in key areas (shelter management, provision of legal advice, among others).

By agreeing to the San José Declaration of Action, Mexico committed itself to:

* Increase the capacity of the international protection system in Mexico, taking into account the increase in the number of requests for refugee status, through the strengthening of the presence of the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR) in national territory with the support of UNHCR, and that it will continue to work to strengthen the quality and effectiveness of the refugee status determination system.

* Improve eligibility procedures, and introduce improvements in management and procedures management.

* Design and implement alternative measures to the detention of migrant refugees applying for refugee status, especially of children and adolescents.

Almost a year later, we do not see that the commitments made in the San José Declaration are being fulfilled. We continue to be a country of grand declarations and promises, while the actual conditions faced by migrants remain at subhuman levels. Despair leads to taking increasingly courageous protest actions like the Refugees’ Viacrucis that returned to take la bestia. Neither the threat of detention nor the private guards guarding the train could prevent the men, women and children from arriving in Mexico City and appearing in the Senate to renounce Mexico’s treatment of them.

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