Confronting the Central American Refugee Crisis
They can’t stay and they have nowhere to go. Forced out by poverty and the threat of imminent death in their countries, extorted by organized crime, kidnapped and executed in the transit countries and deported if they make it to their destination.
We must urgently apply international protocols that define this situation as a serious crisis and declare this population on the move as a population of victims of extreme violence and therefore as refugees, subject to international protection.
Since the last three months of 2013, reports from the field announced that something different was happening in Central American migrant flows en route through Mexico. The premonition became a substantial increase in the traffic on the migratory routes noticeable beginning in February of this year and swelled to a veritable avalanche in the months of April and May and so far in June.
Not only is there an increase in the volume of persons; there’s also a qualitative change in the attitude of the migrants. You can see a real state of emergency that shuts out consideration of the enormous danger and the physical and personal sacrifice that the journey through Mexico implies. This is a population pushed by desperation, without caring about the consequences or the tragedies.
They have no choice but to flee.
The general intensification of violence in the region can be illustrated by the title granted the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula–“the most violent city in the world”. This gives an idea of the levels of violence that affect daily life for Central American families.
Children are the preferred target of the gangs that operate drug and extortion rings, not only in the most important cities of Honduras like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, but also in surrounding metropolitan areas. Honduras now seems to be the country most affected, but the whole region shows a similar reality.
The violence comes from organized crime and goes hand in hand with state violence. Fed by the lack of opportunities for employment, health, education and basic needs for living, and a context of total impunity in which crime victims cannot report crimes because, according to hundreds of testimonies, many have been executed after reporting due to the complicity of government officials with organized crime.
This panorama forces us to understand current migration in a different way. We are not looking at a normal migratory phenomenon, nor can we talk about its actors as migrants. We are faced with a phenomenon of forced expulsion where the actors cease to migrate for traditional reasons in search of better job opportunities or to join families. They are fleeing from extreme violence and the real danger of imminent death.
They cease to be migrants and can better defined as refugees–“referring to persons whose involuntary displacement is initiated by cause or fear of some form of externally imposed conflict that directly threatens their lives, a situation in which their governments of origin are incapable or negligent at the moment of guaranteeing their protection.” (Dic. de Acción Humanitaria y Cooperación al Desarrollo).
According to reports from the field by Ruben Figueroa of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, on the migratory route through Mexico we are seeing a different kind of actors: men and women alone continue to me the majority, followed by a considerable increase in unaccompanied youth between 14 and 18 years old, and an usual number of women with children between 0 and 12. We also see ethnic groups like the Garifuna, from the Central American Caribbean who traditionally were a small minority along the route and now move in groups of fifty to a hundred–an entire community in flight.
The Refuge for Migrant Persons “The 72” in Tenosique, Tabasco, for example, received 6,192 persons between January 1 and May 31, of which 1,000 were women with children and 800 unaccompanied minors. In just the train route between Arriaga, Chiapas and Ixtpec, Oaxaca compared to approximately 50 women per train last year, today every run reports groups of up to 250 women, most with small children.
Figueroa notes that seven of ten migrants interviewed stated they were fleeing from their countries due to death threats, extortion or the assassination of a relative by gangs or “the narcos.” Criminal groups charge for everything–to sell in the street; to operate an established business, large, medium or small; and extortion is so widespread that they even charge a “quota” of families who receive remittances from relatives in the United States. It is a common practice that the gangs try to recruit minors to act as informants or to sell drugs in the schools and if they refuse they are executed.
Outside the network of shelters, the number of people traveling with human smugglers has increased significantly, as part of the overall increase in migrant flows. The presence of smugglers is obvious in the bus stations of Tabasco, Chiapas and Veracruz, where you can find scores of unaccompanied youth whose parents from the United States hire polleros to bring their children. Frequently, women accompany the human traffickers so as not to raise suspicions about being seen with so many children.
Meanwhile, the mass media has been inundated with stories that recount the tragedy of the children detained in emergency “shelters” set up by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. government is finally entering into dialogue with the governments of the region to seek solutions together that attend to the “humanitarian crisis” generated by “the exponential increase in unaccompanied children entering massively in our country”, although the emphasis of the conversations seems to be, as always, on contention measures directed toward the uncontainable: the instinct of human survival.
The unaccompanied children detained by the immigration authorities between October 1, 2013 and May 31 of this year, according to the Pew Research Center, total close to 50,000 minors. Of these, 25% are Mexican, 25% Guatemalan, 29% Honduran and 21% from El Salvador.
Minors detained by Border Patrol agents are submitted to a process of revision of their particular case, and delivered to a member of the family in the United States to care for them until their case passes through immigration court. If the family cannot be located, the children are assigned to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, and as this is happening they are detained in temporary shelters under the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.
The current crisis is the product of the lethal mix of US immigration policies, the hardening of border control, militarization, and regional economic models that displace small farmers and urban workers. ____________________________________________________________________
Thousands of minors have been deported, violating the universal principal of “protecting the higher interest of the child” since they are returned to the situations they fled where they often face domestic violence or death threats. Frequently, they return to the same places where they were threatened for not having accepted joining the local Maras who forcibly recruit into their ranks. In recent interviews, migrant youth have said that the gangs watch the ports of entry to detect the deported with whom they have a dispute. They demand that they pay “the war tax” owed for the time they were absent. In other interviews, migrant youth mentioned young people who have been assassinated after being deported.
In the midst of the attention to the issue of unaccompanied minors, little has been said about the women who travel with children and give themselves up to migration authorities seeking asylum. They make up the majority in the shelters along the migratory route in Mexico. After giving themselves up, they are detained while their case is reviewed and it is determined whether or not they will be granted a residence permit.
The detention centers of the US Immigration and Customs Service are saturated and migration courts have huge waiting lists. The government’s strategy has been to free children to resident family members or friends to await their appointments. They are given a migratory document saying they can stay until called by the court.
Human rights activists especially in south Texas report that the Greyhound bus stations in the area are filled with mothers and children in extremely dire conditions, with no food, change of clothes, hygiene material, or other basic needs, waiting for their families to send them money to be able to travel to reunite with them. Many do not show up for their appointments before the immigration judge for fear that their cases will be thrown out and they disappear among the undocumented population.
While some expectation of being able to get into the United Sates even on a temporary basis allows a glimmer of hope, according to numerous testimonies along the route the decision to leave their country is not made due to rumors about the possibilities of entering or remaining in the United States. What weighs heavily in that difficult decision is the situation of extreme structural violence they suffer in their cities and in the rural areas where they lack the means of survival.
The above testimonies are just the tip of the iceberg of a phenomenon that has acquired the dimensions of an uncontainable crisis, product of the structural violence that in all the countries of the region is wreaked on the poor and vulnerable populations. The current humanitarian crisis is the product of the lethal mix of US immigration policies, the hardening of border control, militarization, and regional economic models that displace small agricultural producers and urban workers–economic models and policies that are unsustainable due to the poverty, inequality and violence that they have generated in the entire region, eroding governmental institutions and pushing to the limit the ability to govern.
For the above reasons and more, it is imperative that under the principle of shared responsibility the regional governments and the United Nations through its specialized agency, ACNUR, take measures of extreme emergency to solve this tragic and shameful juncture, in which the victims of forced migration find themselves in a situation where they cannot stay and have nowhere to go, are extorted by organized crime and corrupt government officials, kidnapped and executed in the transit countries, and detained without defense and deported if they manage to arrive in the country of destination.
Given the extreme violence that forcibly displaces thousands of families from their homes, it is of the utmost urgency and importance that international protocols be applied that define the situation as a serious crisis and declare the population in movement as a population of victims of extreme violence and for that reason refugees, subject to international protection.
The ACNUR defines it as such: “Refugees have to move if they want to save their lives or liberty. They do not have the protection of their own state, in fact, it is often their own government that is threatening or persecuting them. If other countries do not offer the necessary protection, and do not help once they arrive, they can be condemned to death or to an unendurable life in the shadows–without sustenance and without rights.”
Marta Sanchez Soler is a co-founder and spokesperson for the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, based in Mexico. She is a regular contributor to the Americas Program www.americas.org.
Translation: Laura Carlsen