Confronting the Central American Refugee Crisis

By  |  25 / June / 2014

2014-06-25They 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).

-1According 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.

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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.

-3While 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

11 comments

  1. Here is a cut-and-paste from an email from a Tea Party conservative of my acquaintance, suggesting what should be done:

    “I suggest we take the parent’s decision to send their children off as an abdication of parental rights. I would then divvy the kids up by random drawing and send them into the 425 congressional districts and adopt them out to American families. They would become citizens and learn English. They would become Americans by culture as well as law.”

    In looking at that truly hare-brained idea, you can see why we have so much work cut out for us to do meaningful immigration reform.

    Comment by Scott Bidstrup on June 25, 2014 at 7:53 pm

  2. regardless they have no right to be here. neither crime in your neighborhood nor hearing bumps in the night are grounds for asylum. creditable means proof. I can tell you pigs can fly but that doesn’t mean it is true. let’s face the truth, if these stories were true then stopping in Mexico would serve as well. of course conning your way into America is a better payoff. WIC, free school lunches, good quality free education, better pay, overall better standard of living, etc. I don’t blame them for trying but I blame anyone foolish enough to fall for the con.

    Comment by bill on June 27, 2014 at 8:08 am

  3. An Open Act of WAR. They were shooting at border agents. Why is our government allowing hundreds of thousands of ILLEGALS to come across the border and get FREE WELFARE. Sickening, we have hundreds of thousands of Vets and poor in our own country that we can’t take care of, stop bringing in people who have no desire to become Americanized, and only want freebies. The politicians who are allowing this are committing OPEN TREASON against the USA.

    Comment by GetOutNOW on June 28, 2014 at 11:39 am

  4. Uh, Bill… how many refugees can Mexico absorb, and how did Mexico contribute to the refugee crisis? We are doing what we can, but people here face many of the same (U.S. created) situations as those from further south. Mexico took in quite a number of Haitian refugees after the earthquake, and has been absorbing Guatemalan and other Central Americans in large numbers, but we just don’t have the resources to handle the problem.

    Comment by Richard Grabman on June 28, 2014 at 5:40 pm

  5. 25% of these children are reported as from Mexico!! Just because you choose to ignore the plight of the poverty doesn’t mean it isn’t a real and urgent matter for the lives if these people. It could get worse with this sort of ignorance.

    Comment by Carolyn on June 28, 2014 at 7:43 pm

  6. Alas alas the blindness and sheer uber macho politics of the USA is reaping its fruits, in raq, in qhich some two trillion dollars have been spent, some 100,000 iraqi lives lost, a countru totally destroyed and some 5000 us troops killed.. and in Central America where Reagan-inspired military prop up to governements of doubtful democratic legitimacy in Honduras, ElSalvador and Guatemala have wreaked chaos and civile war, where “maquila”-like so-called devleopment have allowed many to get “survival” jobs in slave-like conditions.., Enough nonsense please. Instead of squandering your wealth and having “friendly” governemnts squander the few pesos they have in soldiers, weapons, police forces… why not spend a little bit more in safe schools, health centers, universities, roads, trains….??? Maybe then people will ahve agreater incentive to stay.

    Comment by Pascal Molineaux on June 28, 2014 at 8:24 pm

  7. How can I help?

    Comment by Annette on June 29, 2014 at 8:23 am

  8. There are millions of people around the world today in failed nation states. We cannot take them all in. We must figure out how to help them take back their own communities. Otherwise they will just reproduce the problems here.

    There is another aspect here that concerns me – the cartels have taken over immigrant smuggling for money. If the people coming in this influx owe money to the cartels, you have tens of thousands of people who are now in indentured servitude to the cartels.

    It will get worse if it proves to be profitable for them. I feel sorry for the people – they have been lied to and enmeshed by the cartels. We cannot fix that problem.

    Comment by JMBo on June 29, 2014 at 12:59 pm

  9. Marta Sanchez, Jose Jacques Medina, and Ruben Figueroa, leaders of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano betrayed undocumented immigrants when in 2013, against the demands of immigrant advocates, they pushed for the approval a of a Mexican immigration law that denied transit permission to undocumented children and adults from Central America and other regions. A law as well that defined migration as a national security issue. The American Embassy congratulated Mexican lawmakers for such a “humanitarian and responsible” immigration law.

    Comment by Primitivo Rodríguez on June 29, 2014 at 5:23 pm

  10. If the US government via the School of the Americas (SOA), and their CIA trainers who train and arm thugs did not overthrow the leaders of Central and South American nations putting corrupt puppets in power who accept bribes that result in corporate cartels stealing the natural resources, poisoning the farmlands and water, there would not be a refugee problem. The US government has used the drug cartels for funding escapades outside of Congressional approval – remember the Contra business?

    Since the end of World War II the US government has overthrow the governments of Guatemala 1954; Costa Rica mid-1950s and again, 1970-71; Ecuador 1960-63 and again in 2000; Brazil 1962-64; Dominican Republic 1963; Bolivia 1964 and again in 1971; Chile 1964-73; Jamaica 1976-80; Grenada 1983; Nicaragua 1981-90; Panama 1989; Venezuela 2002; Haiti 2004 and attempted to overthrow the government of Cuba continuously since 1959.

    Juan Orlando Hernandez, the corrupt President of Honduras was trained by the CIA at the School of the Americans about six years ago. Since taking office he has worked diligently through repression and militarization to turn over the natural resources of Honduras to the very same corporate cartels that have been running the US government into the ground. He is directly and personally responsible for serious human rights violations and is not above using the most brutal and corrupt in Honduras to carry out his gluttonous agenda.

    When Americans familiarize themselves with the realities on the ground in most nations who are the recipient of US foreign policy, unfair trade agreements, as well as the use of so-called US aid programs to foster the theft of natural resources and violations of human rights in other nations, they will have a much different view of refugees.

    Indeed, as the corporate cartels become increasingly powerful, Americans themselves are just beginning to feel the direct threat to their own rights and opportunities as these corrupt entities bring down the economy, get bailed out and then offer low-paying, part-time employment to Americans who themselves are increasingly faced with spoiled land and water, homelessness, restrictions in their labor rights, rising costs of food and utilities, and secret courts, secret decisions that restrict or entirely void their rights under the US Constitution and a number of its Amendments.

    Comment by Pourou on June 29, 2014 at 9:50 pm

  11. Thanks for your comment. We certainly are not ignoring the poverty and violence in Mexico and in fact have included Mexico in recommendations to Congress to evaluate the impact of NAFTA and CAFTA and to end the drug war through the Merida Initiative and CARSI. But if you look at the statistics, the increase in unaccompanied minors migrating is completely due to the increase from Central America. Mexico has remained at approximately the same level over the period, high, but steady, so it is not a factor in the surge. Best, Laura

    Comment by Laura Carlsen on July 3, 2014 at 5:55 pm

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