This website is best viewed with CSS and JavaScript enabled.

Understanding the Central American caravans and forced displacement in context

Posted on: November 27, 2018 11:08 AM
A family of four joins a caravan as it leaves Plaza Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador on 31 October 2018.
Photo Credit: Lynette Wilson / Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service, by Lynette Wilson in San Salvador, El Salvador] Families with small children, single mothers and their babies, young men and women, adolescents, the elderly, they all gathered here on a late October morning at the Plaza Salvador del Mundo to form a caravan and begin the long walk north through El Salvador, across Guatemala and Mexico, and for some, eventually to the US border.

It was the second of three caravans to depart that day from the plaza, where a statue features Jesus Christ, saviour of the world, standing atop planet Earth. Some 250 people – many carrying just backpacks and bottled water, some lugging large suitcases that would prove hard to manoeuvre within blocks of the trek – left in the second caravan; others would join them along the way for the 2,600-plus-mile journey. The caravans leaving El Salvador followed one that departed Honduras earlier in the month.

Carla, 29, and her four-year-old son, Anderson Roberto, were among the second Salvadoran caravan to leave that day. Carla volunteered her last name, but in interest of safety it’s withheld. A mother of three, she left her eight- and two-year-old daughters behind with her father; it would be too difficult to travel with three children, she said. She wants to give her son a better life, and to get a job to provide for her family. It was a decision Carla said she has contemplated for five years. As she spoke, Anderson Roberto cried and held tight to her leg.

ENS- Lynette -Wilson _Carla -29-son -Anderson -Roberto -four -leaving -San -Salvador -migrant -caravan -181031_700x 595

Carla, 29, and her son Anderson Roberto, four, were among the 250-or-so people leaving San Salvador in a caravan on 31 October 2018.
Photo: Lynette Wilson / Episcopal News Service

Across Central America’s Northern Triangle, a region that includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, more than 700,000 people have been forcibly displaced by violence. Forced displacement – whether or not it is recognised – has become a political issue regionally and in the United States, where President Donald Trump has called economic migrants and asylum seekers an “assault on our country,” and his administration has deployed 8,000 troops to the border. The president has vowed to deny asylum claims of migrants who attempt to enter the United States illegally, meaning not through a designated point-of-entry.

Already, they’re arriving at the border

Hundreds of Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, on 14 November, and more followed on 15 November as city officials scrambled to offer shelter in what could be an extended stay.

The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande sponsored a Border Ministries Summit in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month.

“These are not delinquents,” said Celia Medrano, regional program director for Cristosal, a San Salvador-based nongovernment organisation with Episcopal ties that receives support from the church. Medrano monitored the caravans’ movement through El Salvador via a WhatsApp group. “They are not bad people; they are people looking for work and fleeing violence.”

Such was the case with Jose Antonio, 34, who two years ago lost his job at a supermarket where he’d worked for 15 years. Jose Antonio, who declined to give his last name, was with his wife, Daisy, 34, and their two children, Maria, 11, who wore a “Frozen” cap – Disney merchandise from the popular film – and Uriel, four, who wore a “Cars” cap.

The family had been living with Daisy’s parents in Mejicanos, El Salvador, where a ditch controlled by gang members ran behind the house. For this journey, the family carried enough food for two days, planned to ask for help in Mexico and, perhaps, eventually would join relatives in Los Angeles.

Migrants have been travelling in caravans since the 1990s; the one that left Honduras in early October is one of the biggest in history. The current caravans’ size and visibility break with the paradigm of clandestine border crossings sometimes aided by human smugglers.

“The caravans represent a change in that pattern,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Cristosal and an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary.

Recent data shows that many people lack the social and familial networks and the resources to displace internally, and therefore, see caravans as a viable option, Bullock said.

“What’s changed about immigration is it’s no longer a lone Mexican crossing the border to find a job. It’s Central American children and families showing up at the border applying for asylum or trying to find protection, that’s what’s changed about it,” he said. “So even with these caravans, you still don’t have an increase in numbers that even moves the net immigration. Immigration isn’t at a 10-year high, it’s at a low. And when you compare that to movements of migrants elsewhere in the world, it’s still really small, so you have a problem in these three countries that’s grave. It needs a solution and it’s totally manageable, if you decide to manage it.”

Cristosal’s Episcopal ties and support

Cristosal began in 2000 as a partnership between Episcopal clergy in the United States and El Salvador. It later became an independent non-governmental organisation with a $2 million [USD, approximately £1.56 million GBP] budget that has grown from three employees in 2010 to more than 60 in three countries thanks to a US International Aid and Development (USAID) grant, though it still maintains close ties to the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians donate $350,000 to the organisation’s annual budget.

Cristosal has offices in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The USAID grant was awarded to increase knowledge about forced displacement caused by violence and to support the development of models to address it, as well as to establish a regional mechanism for tracking and monitoring forced displacement in the Northern Triangle, building capacity in the three Northern Triangle countries for the creation of national protection systems specific to internal displacement, and piloting regional solutions that will improve community-based protection for displaced people.

“What we are so uncomfortable with is the idea that Central Americans are making rational decisions, that families might be assessing their situation at home as so grave that doing crazy things like sending their children unaccompanied or walking to the United States or whatever it would be, is actually a really rational decision,” said Bullock.

Government leaders and officials don’t want to acknowledge that migrants are making a rational decision, Bullock said, because to do so “would raise responsibilities of the state to protect people, to protect human rights; it challenges the traditional immigration narrative that is largely [portrayed as] people coming for jobs and not people fleeing some of the most violent countries in the world.”

For instance, he said, Iraq has a homicide rate of 15 per 100,000, while in El Salvador, even after a reduction in the homicide rate, it is still 60 per 100,000. Since 2014, 7,000 children have died in El Salvador.

“You are much more likely as a Central American and as a poor Central American to die a violent death than you are living in war zones in other parts of the world, yet it’s more convenient when immigration is drop by drop and clandestine. And now that it’s visible, it should be seen as protest,” he said. “The people are protesting – protesting that their national countries don’t provide options for protection and freedom from fear . . . and protest[ing] that, when they cross an international border, they find no place on planet Earth where they can pursue legitimate ends in life.”

A global phenomenon

Forced displacement is an international phenomenon affecting a record 68.5 million people worldwide, a population larger than that of the United Kingdom.

In El Salvador alone, an estimated 296,000 people are internally displaced, meaning they’ve been forced to flee their homes but have not yet crossed a border, whereas in Honduras, a conservative estimate puts the number at 190,000. In Guatemala, the number exceeds 242,000.

Of the three Northern Triangle countries, only Honduras has recognised the existence of forced displacement, establishing a national commission to study and document cases. That’s about to change, however. In July, as a result of Cristosal’s work, El Salvador’s Supreme Court gave the government six months to officially recognise forced displacement by violence in the country, design special legislation and policies for the protection and assistance of victims, and make victims of displacement a priority in the national budget.

ENS- Lynette -Wilson _men -women -families -pensioners -migrant -caravan -San -Salvador -181031_700x 467

Many young men and women, families and elderly persons joined the caravan that departed San Salvador on 31 October 2018. It was the second of three caravans to leave for the north that day.
Photo: Lynette Wilson / Episcopal News Service

“It’s the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens. It’s a security issue,” said Elizabeth Ferris, during a 29 October talk at the University of Central America. “There’s a short-term need to address migrants’ needs, and in the long term, a reduction in violence and to recover territory.”

Ferris, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration and a former director of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, was in El Salvador to provide technical expertise to advance the legislation. Forty countries recognise forced displacement, but only 11 or 12 have strategies to address it, said Ferris.

As early as 2013, individuals and families began showing up at Cristosal’s office seeking assistance, some of them referred by the US Embassy because at the time the Anglican-Episcopal Church of El Salvador resettled refugees through Cristosal’s office.

“It even took a long time for us to learn the language around displacement. First, it was people affected by extortion and gang violence, and there are some who are refugees, and then we learned about internal displacement,” said Bullock.

And then in 2014, 69,000 unaccompanied minors, mothers and children arrived at the US border, bringing attention to the high number of people forcibly displaced by violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The number on the Southwest border dropped to 59,692 in 2016 and to 41,435 in 2017, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

“Before the child migrant crisis in 2014, there was no context to advocate or even talk about displacement by violence in Central America, and so when the child migrant crisis happened, there was a lot of pressure on the US government to come to the region and find out what could be done,” Bullock said. “That was the first time that violence was linked to migration in a really visible way for the US public.”

By then, Cristosal had two to three years’ practical experience dealing with forced displacement by violence. USAID recognised its work and encouraged Cristosal to expand its presence and develop an adaptive response beyond El Salvador and into Honduras and Guatemala.

Still, it was the support of Episcopal churches and individual Episcopalians that allowed Cristosal to become one of the foremost organisations addressing forced displacement in the Northern Triangle.

“The important thing for Episcopalians to know is that Cristosal’s ability to work on an issue that nobody wanted, before anybody else was willing to fund it, was wholly supported by Episcopalians who believed in us,” said Bullock. “That support allowed us to become a regional leader in developing a response, and that’s something we never want to lose. Our Episcopal support base allows us to be independent and take risks and develop response and then move donors to our issues as we scale. That’s what worked for us. And, so we want to keep doing that.”

2014 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration, which amended the 1951 refugee convention and the 1967 protocol definition of what it means to be a refugee: “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

The Obama administration responded to the unaccompanied minor crisis by increasing security at the border, detention and interdiction by Mexico of minors and families seeking refuge in the United States. Trump made curbing immigration a centrepiece of his election campaign. Then, in the first eight months of 2018, Customs and Border Control agents detained more than 252,000 people – 32,371 unaccompanied minors and 59,113 families at the Southwest border – and the administration began separating families. The family separation policy coincided with the first caravan’s arrival when, of the several hundred members who requested protection, 95 percent were found to have a credible fear of persecution and were referred for a full hearing in the immigration courts, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.

On 22 October, Trump threatened to cut aid to Central America if countries did not act to stop the flow of migrants.

In advance of the 6 November midterm elections, Trump used the caravans as a scare tactic, and his political team produced an ad portraying immigrants as a violent threat. US TV and social networks pulled the ad and denounced it as racist. Reductions by Trump’s White House to the nation’s refugee resettlement program show an interest in limiting more than just illegal immigration.

The United States was a worldwide leader in refugee resettlement just two years ago, when more than 80,000 refugees were welcomed into the country with help from the nine agencies with federal contracts to do that work, including Episcopal Migration Ministries. That number has dwindled under the Trump administration, which announced on 17 September that it would reduce resettlement further, to no more than 30,000 a year.

The United States Refugee Act of 1980 guarantees a person’s right to ask for asylum. And it was a civil war and a refugee crisis that have contributed to the current violence in El Salvador.

“When Salvadoran refugees left in the 1980s, three percent were recognised as refugees, forcing Salvadorans who came to the United States to marginal parts of our cities, where they became gang members and then were deported back to their countries of origin, which gives us the basis of the current violence that is driving people out,” said Bullock.

The region has a strategic interest in promoting safety and security in Central America, “because un-stabilised, unprotected people destabilise,” said Bullock.

Civil conflict and “transitional justice”

From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador suffered a brutal civil war fought between its US-backed, military led-government and a coalition of guerrilla groups, organised as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN. The war was fuelled mostly by the gross inequalities that existed between a small group of wealthy elites who controlled the government and the economy and the majority of the population, which lived in extreme poverty.

The 1992 Peace Accords’ negotiations included the formation of a truth commission to investigate human rights violations that occurred during the civil war. However, a 1993 amnesty law made it impossible to prosecute war crimes and reform the justice system and police and military forces, leading to weak democratic institutions and persistent impunity and discrimination against victims. People who had political and economic power maintained it after the war ended.

In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that the amnesty law could not protect those responsible for the massacre at El Mozote, where government soldiers killed some 800 people, half of them children, in December 1981.

In post-war El Salvador, grassroots human rights and social justice organisations have played a key role in protecting the historical memory and bringing these cases out of the shadows of history. In 2016, Cristosal began using strategic litigation to get justice for victims and end the long-standing culture of impunity and is working on both the El Mozote and the 1982 El Calabozo massacres.

“Strategic litigation,” explained David Morales, Cristosal’s director of strategic litigation and El Salvador’s former human rights ombudsman, is a way of providing “transitional justice,” which is a political and social process aimed at applying justice and addressing grave human rights abuses and holding perpetrators of violence accountable.

“Cristosal focuses its legal actions on cases that will have a lot of impact,” said Morales. “Impunity today is linked to impunity in the past . . . decades of dictatorships, systematic human rights abuses. The state never created a support system for victims.”