The wave of people fleeing violence from Central America continues despite efforts by the United States, and more recently by Mexico, to deter migration. Over the past year, Mexico has been called the “Mediterranean for migrants” in the Americas, drawing parallels with the refugee crisis in Europe, requiring similar visibility and response by the international community. The increase in violence and persecution stemming from transnational organized crime, gangs and drug cartels in Central America’s Northern Triangle region – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – has forced men, women and children to flee from their homes and head towards Mexico and the United States. The number of refugees and asylum-seekers from these three countries in Central America has increased significantly, from 20,900 in 2012 to 109,800 in 2015, a fivefold increment in only three years (UNHCR).
However, as civil society organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) highlight, the reality is that Central American refugees remain rather invisible, not only to the world at large, but also to the governments in the region that fail to provide them international protection. Mexico and the U.S. have responded to the massive flow of refugees into their countries with deterrence strategies, including mass deportations.
In its most recent report “Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration”, the International Crisis Group reports that in 2015, Mexico returned 166,000 Central Americans, including 30,000 children and adolescents, while only granting refugee status to only 936 asylum-seekers. These figures signal to a systemic problem with the asylum process, especially in the case of Mexico.
The Mexican Law on Refugees and Complementary Protection (2011) expands the groups of protected individuals as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. It includes those persecuted due to gender and, incorporating language from the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (1984), it also includes those fleeing generalized violence, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.
Unfortunately, what has been seen as a good practice on paper in Mexican asylum law is not reflected in reality: there remains serious barriers to refugee recognition for Central Americans, such as the lack of staff to properly evaluate their claims and support them in the asylum process. This is especially the case for unaccompanied children who are least likely to ask for this protection. On the other hand, mass detention and deportation continues to be the primary response to the influx of Central Americans, many of whom merit this type of protection in light of documented conditions in the region.
The U.S. has taken a similar approach in prioritizing national security to justify expedited removals, and carrying out raids to remove those with exhausted asylum claims instead of making modifications to their asylum law to respond to the mass influx of asylum seekers. This past June, MSF published a blog post in Animal Político titled “Central American refugees, how much longer will we take to call them by their name?”*. The title gets to the core of the issue. States in the Americas are overzealous in their attempt to close their borders, that they conveniently forget the human rights obligations they are bound to fulfill. Denying international protection to would-be refugees with plausible claims, who are deterred from initiating or completing the process, shows a negligence of States to assure fair hearing on every claim for refugee recognition. In light of this, MSF offers the following reflection:
Who will be the last refugee? Not because of the lack of individuals who want to flee wars, but rather because they will no longer be able to flee from them, trapped in conflicts, unable to seek refuge, abandoned in no man’s land and incapable of crossing the borders built by all of us.*
We may never reach the end of the line of those who are asking for a new start where they can be welcomed and given opportunity for a dignified life. However, the scenario illustrated by MSF is our reality today. People are already trapped between conflicts, violence, and disasters, as our governments respond by closing their doors to them. In light of this, civil society is called upon to place political pressure in order to revert this trend; and it starts with civil society taking a stand for humanity, and continuing its work to mobilize at the regional and international levels. The upcoming UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants on September 19, 2016 will provide an opportunity to “bring countries together behind a more human and coordinated approach” to large movements of migrants and refugees. Voices from civil society must be heard in these dialogues to bring forth solutions designed to ensure that States reflect principles of international human rights instruments in their national immigration and refugee policies, so that they may respond to the contemporary realities of forced migration, as seen through the experiences of Central Americans.
*Translated from Spanish