A few questions about the “migrant caravan”

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

A “migrant caravan” is making its way from Honduras to the United States. Al-Jazeera tells us, “Facing tightened security, waves of Hondurans continue to try to make it to the US, saying they have no other choice.” One member of the caravan tells NBC “We aren’t coming from Honduras because we want to, we come because we have to.”

I tried to read several reports on this, as the migrants now say they are “stranded” at the border of Mexico near a town called Ciudad Hidalgo. According to NBC there are 4,000 migrants in the “caravan” and they are trying to get into Mexico. “The approximately 2,000 to 3,000 migrants remaining in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman began crossing hours after the first group.”

How did this start?

According to the NBC report. “The caravan began with hundreds preparing to leave Honduras, and grew in size after media coverage.” So media coverage played a key role in motivating people to decide that they would get to the US. One problem though. There are two countries they have to go through to get there. First Guatemala and then Mexico. “Mexican authorities said on Saturday that 640 migrants from the caravan have presented asylum claims to the Mexican government.” So they have applied for “asylum” in Mexico. Most of the applicants are men, which might not be the most vulnerable and poorest group in Honduras. “The Mexican Interior Ministry said it has received 640 asylum claims – 164 from women, including pregnant women, and 104 from children under 17.”

Al-Jazeera notes, “When [one woman] left earlier, the bus terminal was packed with hundreds of people from different parts of Honduras setting out to flee the country for a variety of reasons, but mainly unemployment and violence.” She arrived at the Agua Caliente border crossing with Guatemala eight hours later. “Those who had lucked into bus rides right from San Pedro Sula had been there all night, and Madrid and others streamed in throughout the morning.”

USA Today notes: “The migrants, who say they are escaping poverty, poor working conditions and violence, slept overnight on a bridge over the Suchiate River with no fresh supplies of water or food and without bathrooms, eyewitnesses said.” One many said “there is no turning back,” after breaking through the border to Mexico.

What do the migrants say about why they are leaving?

“Ramirez and her three sons left from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with the caravan to trek toward the United States due to economic insecurity. Ramirez said at the shelter Saturday that her family left Honduras because jobs are scarce, wages are low and crime is rampant.” So some left because there aren’t enough jobs and there is crime.

“We aren’t coming from Honduras because we want to, we come because we have to. Why? Because the crisis in Honduras is great — crime, basic care, health, in various aspects Honduras is bad,” Perez said. “Because if I lived okay, if we had excellent conditions, I wouldn’t leave the comfort of my home to come to this country to suffer and risk my kids’ lives,” Ramirez said.

Al-Jazeera reported that Reina Madrid “left them with her sister Thursday afternoon to join a caravan of Honduran migrants and refugees in order to seek work.” Her children were in school but she decided that employment difficulty made the journey necessary. “Facing electrical bills and school expenses, Madrid decided to join a large group of Hondurans leaving from the San Pedro Sula bus terminal.”

The report continues. “It is not by choice that so many Hondurans are abandoning their country, Santos says. ‘It is need. There are no job opportunities,’ he tells Al Jazeera, adding that in Honduras, ‘we face hunger. There is nothing.'”

Getting to Mexico

Migrants say they are stranded at the border. However Al-Jazeera reports that many were swimming or rafting across. “We broke through the border,” Madrid told Al-Jazeera.

Why not stay in Mexico?

“Those who crossed into Mexico and spoke with NBC News said they will have approximately 30 days to stay in the country before they must move elsewhere. But some said they wouldn’t mind staying in Mexico.” Tania Rodriguez told NBC that”Our hope is to get to the United States but if Mexico gives us refuge then we’ll stay and work here.”

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A map of the route from Honduras to the US

All of Honduras wants to come?

One of the women told Al-Jazeera that “All of Honduras wants to come here.”  The migrants have said they are refugees, not immigrants. One man told Reuters that “migrants from elsewhere in the region had joined the caravan, along with others from ‘outside the region.'”

“This is not a caravan anymore. This is an exodus,” said Ruben Figuerora of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, to Reuters.

How long has this been going on?

According to reports going back years, this trend has been going on for a while. For instance in April CNN ran a piece about how central American countries are in such bad condition that people must flee. The article notes, “Why would a caravan of migrants spend a month trekking across several countries, battling hunger, filth and illness, when their chances of getting US asylum are so slim?

CNN described their countries as “nightmares they’re trying to escape.” Honduras for instance is the “second poorest country in Central America” and people suffer from “extraordinary unequal distribution of income,” as well as gang violence. “There are no jobs,” one man told CNN in April. In El-Salvador the situation is also difficult. It has a high homicide rate and gangs. “I don’t have an option,” one woman told reporters. In Guatemala poverty and malnutrition are rampant. “Guatemalans have a history of emigrating legally and illegally to Mexico, the United States and Canada because of a lack of economic opportunity, political instability, and natural disasters.”

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A CNN article from 2014 describes the crises (Screenshot)

Refugees? Actually this has been going on since before 2014

In 2014 CNN noted “a huge influx of young migrants from Central America” who were telling the UN they were “trying to escape drug cartels, gang violence, murder and rape as they stream across the southern border.” CNN looked at whether they were “migrants” or “refugees.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that the US should treat the migrants as “refugees.” CNN noted this “could prompt more from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to seek asylum.” At the time the Obama administration struggled with what to do as large numbers of minors appeared at the border. The 2014 report includes a fascinating quote: “‘We don’t want to send people back into harm’s way … but the more they expand access to asylum, the more people will feel they have a case,’ said Adam Isacson, a senior associate for regional security for Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit humanitarian organization.”

So in 2014 it was acknowledged that if more people came and some received asylum it might encourage others to come. “There is important nuance and distinction in calling the surge a “humanitarian crisis” while steering clear of deeming the migrants ‘refugees,’ international policy and humanitarian aid experts say. The difference determines who gets asylum and who goes back,” CNN noted. But the UN wanted the US to see some of the migrants as refugees. “Shelly Pitterman, the U.N. refugees commission regional representative in the United States, said in a statement advocating broader refugee status. ‘We’re witnessing a complex situation in which children are leaving home for a variety of reasons, including poverty, the desire to join family, and the growing influence of trafficking networks. Within this movement, there are also children who are fleeing situations of violence at the hands of transnational organized criminal groups and powerful local gangs,’ Pitterman said.”

But experts were less clear on whether these were refugees. “Violent threats, the type many have apparently told U.N. workers they face from drug cartels and gangs at home, aren’t always enough to qualify for asylum, immigration legal scholars and humanitarian aid workers said.” In contrast CNN senior political analyst David Gergen “likened the calls for mass deportation to a boat of Jewish refugees who sought safety in America as World War II loomed.” He claimed that “Seventy-five years later, we are faced with a new group of desperate people hovering in our midst — this time children from Central America escaping escalating levels of violence few of us can fathom.”

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Migrants on a bridge in Macedonia during the 2015 crises (Seth J. Frantzman)

Global migration crises

The migration trend of large numbers of people in “caravans” reminds us of the large migration patterns also affecting other countries, such as the EU. In those cases a similar style of chain migration, with people crossing multiple borders to seek asylum in Europe, has causes hundreds of thousands to try to get to Turkey or North Africa to cross to Europe. I covered the 2015 migration crises in Greece and eastern Europe, walking with the refugees and migrants to Hungary.

Thousands died. In addition a small industry of aid organizations have popped up, in many cases creating a cycle. For instance off the coast of Libya the migrant smugglers know they only have to push their inflatable and dangerous rafts into international waters for the migrants to be picked up. This has caused large numbers of deaths. Instead of taking the migrants to neighboring Tunisia, which is closer than the US, the migrants are only taken to Europe which provides incentive for more to try the tragic voyage.

An industry of rape and other abuses have become common in the human trafficking networks. Many people are lured from far away in central Africa with promises of a better life. Along the way people are sold into slavery and abused in horrid ways. This has been going on for years. In Sinai, for instance, many thousands of Eritreans were tortured and raped by beduin smugglers.

Where is this heading?

Refugee status used to be for people fleeing a threat to their lives. They would flee to an area where they were safe, usually a neighboring country, and hope to go home or be re-settled elsewhere. Over the last decades the concept of “refugees” has changed. It’s no longer about helping people who are in immediate danger get to safety, it has become more about resettling refugees in wealthier, mostly wester, states where many of them want to go. It has also expanded the notion of what constitute a “refugee” and coined the term “asylum seeker.” Anyone can attempt to seek asylum and countries are supposed to process these claims. So every person wanting to move somewhere can become an “asylum seeker.”

This quiet shift in language, which CNN also discussed in 2014, shifts the burden onto whichever countries the seekers want to go to. So mostly economic migrants who even admit they are they primarily want a better life in a wealthier country will not settle for moving from one poor country to a slightly less poor country. Once they understand that they can be asylum seekers in the wealthiest countries or those countries that offer the most, they inevitably choose those countries. That’s why most members of the migrant caravan don’t really want to end up in neighboring countries. There are no shortage of peaceful neighboring countries. Even if crime rates are high in Honduras or El Salvador, and even if gang violence is a reason to flee a place, it’s not clear if that’s a reason every person from those countries requires asylum in the United States, as opposed to, say, Belize or Panama or Mexico which are closer.

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Some Central American countries have the highest murder rates in the world (screenshot)

Crime rates are indeed a major threat to life in Honduras, El Salvador and even Belize. The migrants however don’t only describe crime as the reason for leaving. In the interviews at various news organizations above they describe a long list of reasons. But they also seem to be able to leave their countries easily. Many of them described a bus ride to the border. They appear to have been promised an easy trip to a new life.

An easy trip to a new and better life has motivated global migration throughout history. For instance the mass migration to the New World was motivated by the same desires. But no one would describe those who moved to the New World as “refugees.” Some were indeed fleeing religious persecution, but most wanted simply a better life.

The world is getting worse and the number of refugees is growing

The global migration and refugee crises is at its worst in 100 years. In 2013 the UN said hat the global refugee crises had reached more than 50 million people, its worst since the Second World War. There were also 1.2 million asylum claims that year. 68 million people had been forcibly displaced, although some were IDPs in their own countries. However, despite the feeling that all these refugees are heading for Europe or North America, the reality is that 84% of refugees are living in the developing world. For instance Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran, Uganda and Ethiopia are among the top hosts of refugees. The top countries people fled from were Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

So the larger story here is that 4,000 migrants from Honduras, even if it is one of several caravans a year, is not a huge number. But the question is whether the world is systematically getting worse and, due to globalization, do people feel that traveling thousands of kilometers for a new life makes more sense than moving somewhere else in their own country? This definitely appears to be the case

Hard questions

While the global refugee has one side, another side has increasingly become a notion that asylum seekers have a right not merely to seek asylum in a neighboring country, but whatever country they want to move to. The most vulnerable and poorest refugees don’t usually know about their rights or have the means to get to places like northern Europe or the United States. For instance if we look at the developing countries that actually host many refugees and where the refugees come from, we tend to find that many of them never attempt the journey to Europe or the US.

But when we look at the migrant caravan from Honduras we don’t see the poorest and most vulnerable of the world’s refugees. We don’t even see the most needy or threatened. What is revealed generally in interviews is that migration has become popular and sufficiently easy that many people are willing to undertake it. This probably is related to promises or even financial encouragements of a better life. We aren’t told how these “caravans” are organized or what the people are told they will receive. Perhaps they are told that bringing young children will increase their chances of asylum? Perhaps men who are adults are told if they say they are under 18 they will be more likely to get asylum. This isn’t usually explained. How do caravans catch on suddenly?

There is also a method by countries like Mexico to generally channel these migrants onward to the US. The US has tried to pressure Mexico, the way the EU pressured Europe, but this is not a solution. The EU has been paying Turkey to keep migrants away and also begun to pay North African countries as well. But paying other countries is just pushing the problem onto some other place.

The question at the end must be whether these kinds of migrant caravans are partly a manufactured crises preying on poor people to sell them a fantasy of moving to a new New World, in which the crises is used as a political stunt. If they are then the victims are those who join, unsuspecting, the motives of some who want to use this for their own ends. But if the migrant caravans are not manufactured, or part of a kind of new media-induced tulip mania, then that means they are a necessary desire by millions of people in places like Honduras. If that is the case then the long-term question is really how to make Honduras, El Salvador and many other countries hospitable.

We must ask why it is in 2018 that many of these countries are worse off then decades ago. In the period of the post-colonial era or cold war the problems besetting the third world or developing world were generally thought to be those caused by colonialism or rapacious policies that harmed the global south. During the Cold War the conflicts over “imperialism” and revolution led to upheavals. But in the 1990s there was a wave of democratization. The meddling by western powers was reduced. Neo-liberalism replaced heavy handed policies. Live Aid, capacity building, and and forgiving African debt replaced the mega-donor projects of dam building of previous eras.

But it’s unclear if these policies have merely reinvented colonial structures and problems, or perpetuated them, or accelerated local problems. For instance in 2005 the G-8 wrote off $40 billion in debt for sub-saharan African states. China has stepped in to provide new debt to the tune of $60 billion. There’s little evidence that many of these issues in the global south are getting better or the security is increasing and poverty decreasing.

For instance what is the hope of a country such as Honduras if the people say they all want to leave and come to the US? Can the US, which is wealthier, really shoulder the burden of taking on all the migration needs of central America? Is that really a long-term solution? Is the solution, the one that Washington seems to want to tinker with, an endless crises at the border, hundreds of thousands of deportations, millions of undocumented people? There is no evidence that this situation is getting better. In fact any attempt to create more strict border conditions is condemned by Mexico, as if it is the US role to be the place that Mexico can shift its poverty problems to. The insinuation is that somehow the US is at fault, so therefore the US should absorb these problems. Could the US call this bluff by simply providing citizenship to anyone who wants it from Mexico and Honduras and other countries? Certainly someone profits from having millions of undocumented workers, from mass deportation, from a whole border industry that revolves around this and which much involve billions of dollars. What if the situation could be streamlined and regularized? That may be as difficult a question to ask as, whether countries such as Honduras will improve or if there is a way to help them improve?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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