By Kathryn Wallace
*Note, the term migrant is used to identify an individual who leaves his or her home country for another country, regardless of the motivations or circumstances surrounding the passage. Refugee refers to individuals who seek refuge from conflict and persecution according to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
We face a momentous refugee crisis. Men, women, and children flee conflict-ridden homes where pervasive violence threatens to swallow their families into a vacuum of brutality, sexual exploitation, and devastation. Young and old, able-bodied and feeble, refugees make the harrowing journey towards hopeful sanctuary in neighboring nations. Their feet march beyond exhaustion; their shoulders bow under the weight of their beleaguered children; their fate balances haphazardly between the exploitive traffickers’ promises and the militarized police forces tasked with keeping them out.
And although some are refugees, granted protections by the 1951 Refugee Convention, if they miraculously endure the naturally-inhospitable conditions or the deliberate security measures installed to deter them, they are received by protestors vigorously raising placards that demand they return home, politicians capitalizing on fear and xenophobia to establish their anti-immigration agenda, and none of the privileges outlined by international law. Apprehension, mistrust, and prejudice subdue states’ avowedly humanitarian character, redefining refugees as migrants in the public conscience.
Too many migrants will steal our jobs. Too many migrants will be a burden to the state. Too many migrants will tear apart the precarious social fabric that we have seamlessly stitched together.
Recent images of a Syrian child’s lifeless body washed ashore, a video of a Hungarian camerawoman assaulting refugees, and reports of the squalid conditions of makeshift refugee camps place the current influx of (predominantly) Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish migrants at the center of international spotlight. And although the plight of these refugees is deplorable – and I do not intend to detract from its significance or the critical and diligent response which it necessitates – the world’s refugee dilemma extends well beyond the present focus of the camera lens, to a migration crisis about which most people have already forgotten.
In 2014, around 70,000 “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs) were apprehended during their exodus from the systemic violence plaguing Central America. Primarily young females and even younger children from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), the detainees contradicted unconventional authorized migration patterns. They weren’t exclusively economic migrants seeking jobs and economic advancement across the border, but refugees seeking sanctuary. The pure enormousness of the crisis inundated the US Border Patrol and ignited international attention.
Sensationalist anti-immigration bobbleheads called it a “Trojan Horse-type of invasion.” Falsely-claiming refugee status, the children were penetrating the porous border with their “Third World” diseases and cultural contamination made possible by the administration’s mere $12 billion annual investment in border security. These children were mere proxies for the real crisis, compared to the 486,651 total unauthorized immigrants had been apprehended in the same year, more than half of which came from Central America.
Others wondered what conditions could possibly compel a mother to send her children through a veritable wasteland dominated by sadistic brutality indiscriminately perpetrated by security forces and notorious criminal networks. What sort of nightmare led a mother to hoist her child atop La Bestia, where a single moment’s lapse into sleep could mangle their young bodies beneath the quickly-moving freight train at best, and tortuously slaughter them at worst? What terrors justified sending them on a trip where sexual violence is often perceived as the “price” criminal gangs demand for passage, where contraceptive injections are recommended because an estimated 80 percent of Central American women and girls are raped?
Human rights groups attempted to highlight the historical origins of the Central American humanitarian crisis: post-colonial legacies apparent in persistent socioeconomic and racial inequality, genocidal civil wars and oppressive military regimes buttressed by the Cold War context, as well as the ill-fated location of the region between drug producers and consumers. Exacerbating the regional imbroglio, the US Congress had adopted a hardline approach to immigration in the late 1990s, repatriating foreign-born felons and exporting the US-style gang culture to the institutionally-weak nations of the Northern Triangle. Gangs, or maras (emphatically named after the marabunta, a deadly species of local ant known for its predatory colonization) were transplanted to the region, intertwining with existing drug networks. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 (M-18) experienced explosive, cross-border growth absorbing an estimated 200,000 members by 2007, with 45 percent of Central Americans younger than 15 years old and recruitment starting as young as nine.
These two maras gained de-facto control over large swathes of the region, regularly entangling civilians in the adversarial and violent tensions between them. Between 2007 and 2012, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala had some of the highest rates of violent deaths per 100,000 people (73.4, 59.1, and 41.7, respectively), compared to the US national average of 4.5.
Possibly even more telling was the targeted victimization of women and children, the countries were three-out-of-four of the top committers of femicide, or murders targeting women purely because of their gender, between 2007 and 2012. Women’s abandoned bodies literally littered the streets, wrapped in trash bags and dumped in alleys for authorities to find. In 2013, hardly 2 percent of femicide cases were investigated in Guatemala and Honduras, validating the impunity for criminals, particularly in cases of anti-women crimes. A UNHCR study, which surveyed the UACs detained by the US, reported that almost half of the UACs had experienced “violence or threats by organized-crime groups, including gangs, or drug cartels, or by state actors in their home countries,” and a quarter suffered “abuse at home and violence at the hands of their caretakers.” Although the immigration cases continue, many analysts predict that upwards of 40 percent of the UACs detained in 2014 could qualify for relief from the US government.
But as the world turned, and the news shifted to another lurid misfortune, the hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflict-riddled Central America became passé. If we were somehow reminded of the crisis, we assumed it had subsided: only 70,400 Central American migrants reached the US between October 2014 and April 2015, compared to 162,700 the year before. But in reality, the crisis has not abated, the first line of defense has merely moved. Before 2014, migrants readily crossed into Mexico, essentially unencumbered by the security forces. But $86 million in border modernization investments from the US State Department and $3 billion in military equipment sales from the US government and private companies has marked a “100-fold increase from prior years,” exporting the job of border securitization to Mexican authorities.
In contrast to the steep decline in US border apprehensions, Mexico detained 93,000 Central Americans between October 2014 and April 2015, almost double the 49,800 from the same period in the year before. At first glance, US efforts to strengthen Mexican border initiatives seems beneficial for all states involved.
Further inspection reveals concerns about the sustainability of a strategy, which requires an extensive and expensive buildup; the refugee administration has only 15 officers tasked with reviewing the 2,000 annual asylum requests. Even more questionable is a policy, which depends on security forces that face frequent accusations of corruption and human rights violations, including the 43 college students which were allegedly captured and killed by local police forces last year.
In August of this year, El Salvador declared MS-13 and M-18 terrorist organizations after reporting its highest murder rate (an average of 30 deaths a day) since its civil war ended more than 20 years ago, entering it into competition with Honduras for the highest homicide rate in the world, “outside of conflict.” For many, there is nowhere left to go: humanitarian groups working in the Northern Triangle have noticed a substantial uptick in child brides seeking protection for themselves and their families, but placing them at a higher risk of sexual and domestic abuse and complications of childbirth.
Fewer children may be entering the United States and the media continues to ignore the intensifying violence and humanitarian crisis; but the same circumstances which forced 70,000 children through hostility persist. So as petitions circulate, calling on Americans to provide sanctuary for Syrian refugees, I can’t help but wonder why this compassion does not extend to all “Americans.”
Kathryn Wallace is the Editor-in-Chief of the ExPatt Magazine and a Master’s Candidate for Diplomacy and International Commerce at the Patterson School. She is passionate about women’s rights, Latin America, and making international issues accessible to all audiences. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with employment opportunities.