By Isabel Leask -
On the 20th of June 2020, World Refugee Day will honour the bravery and determination of thousands of individuals who have been forced to leave their homes in search of safer, more dignified lives. For many people residing in Europe, this day will raise issues surrounding the on-going European refugee crisis, especially the critical situation of individuals and families awaiting asylum, and often detention and deportation, at the Greece-Turkey border. Further afield, however, a similar crisis ensues on the U.S.-Mexico border, where thousands of individuals are stranded in camps and border towns, desperately awaiting news on their asylum claims.
Like those who arrive on Europe’s doorstep, many asylum seekers at the U.S.’s southern border have fled armed conflict, crippling poverty, and natural disasters. They have also undertaken perilous journeys across hostile terrains whilst being at risk of kidnapping, violence, and death, and often arrive at the border with only the clothes on their backs. While a large portion of the individuals seeking protection in the U.S. are Mexican nationals, in recent years, an increasing number of the migrants who arrive at the border have travelled from one of the most dangerous regions in the world: the Northern Triangle of Central America, composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The roots of Central American emigration
Paradoxically, the roots of Central American instabilities causing forced immigration to the U.S., derive from a long history of U.S. intervention in the region. Throughout the 20th century, and particularly during the Cold War, U.S. governments played a central role in undermining left-wing governments in Latin America in an effort to curb the spread of communism. In the Northern Triangle of Central America, Several U.S. backed military coup d’états replaced democratically elected governments, leading to regional civil wars and the implementation of economic systems which privatised essential public resources and services. These regimes operated through terror, leading to thousands of human rights violations and the deaths of many citizens. When these regimes were eventually dismantled, the nations in the Central American region were left in a state of political turmoil, which in turn, precipitated a rise in paramilitary activity and cartel violence.
In recent years, the Northern Triangle of Central America has become the main transit route for South American narcotics destined for the United States which has exacerbated the already volatile regional stability, particularly through the increase in homicide rates. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that over the last half-decade, around 265,000 people have left the Northern Triangle region of Central America annually, many believing that they will find safety and financial security in the United States. According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, between 2011 and 2017, asylum applications from the Northern Triangle increased by almost 100%.
America’s crusade against immigration
Seeking asylum at the U.S. border has never been an easy process nor one that has necessarily guaranteed a refugee’s path to safety. However, from the outset of President Trump’s time in office in 2017, there have been unprecedented attempts to block, detain and deport migrants from U.S. soil reaching a climax with the president’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy introduced in April 2018. This policy was an attempt to crackdown on illegal immigration by prosecuting and incarcerating adults found guilty of violating immigration laws. Most controversially, however, the policy enabled federal authorities to separate children from parents who were being prosecuted, with no intention of implementing measures to reunite these families at a later date. Trump has since ended family separation at the border due to the international outcry and the wave of unaccompanied child migrants that it produced.
Nevertheless, the president’s crusade against immigrants and asylum seekers intensified the following year, when, in 2019, his administration introduced the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) also known as the ‘Remain in Mexico’ programme. Contrary to what the name would suggest, the MPP programme has exacerbated the risks for asylum seekers and is largely responsible for creating the current Central American refugee crisis at the U.S.- Mexico Border. It entails that asylum seekers who “surrender” themselves at a U.S. port of entry are sent back to Mexico while they await U.S. immigration court hearings. This process can take up to several months which has forced over 60,000 migrants to wait in some of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities and camps, where women and children are particularly at risk of assault, kidnapping and trafficking. Furthermore, the conditions in the camps themselves are demoralizing and extremely unhygienic, which, in light of the recent outbreak of Covid-19, is likely to be an additional threat to many lives.
The theme of this year’s Refugee Week (15th-21st of June), in anticipation of World Refugee Day, is “imagine.” As both the European and North American migration crises have highlighted, borders don’t diminish dreams of safety and dignity, and no matter how many walls are built or draconian immigration policies implemented, people will continue to pursue their vision of a life free from conflict. When it comes to the U.S.-Mexico border, not only does the U.S. have an international obligation to recognise the rights of those fleeing persecutions in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention, but also, a national duty to acknowledge and make amends for the role it has played in causing the current Central American migration crisis- starting with a drastic reforming of its inhumane immigration system.