“Central American Exodus” will continue as long as underlying causes remain unaddressed

Photo caption: Migration Station “Siglo XXI” in Tapachula, Chiapas. Photo courtesy of Father Heyman Vasquez, director of the shelter “Nadie es Extranjero” (No one is a Stranger).

May 13, 2019 – The United States government continues to restrict and erode our asylum system, while ignoring the underlying causes of the Central American exodus.  Independent researchers and journalists continue to document human rights violations and other factors driving forced migration in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Until these causes are addressed with concrete solutions for the short, medium, and long-term, the migrant exodus will continue.

In the past week, several research results were released on Honduran youth migration. One study revealed that 20% of students in middle school (from 6th to 8th grade) have made plans to migrate, while 63% of students who have graduated high school are considering migrating to the United States or Spain. The studies cited fear, lack of safety and lack of opportunity– two issues that will be crucial for creating an environment in which children and youth feel they can stay.

A project by El Faro and Vice called “Diverse America” shows how the rights of LGBTQ people in Central America are being specifically ignored and undermined.  This includes legislation that prevents transgender individuals from changing their name and gender on their birth certificate, legal persecution, and other forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace and daily life.  The report also exposes the risks faced by lesbian women in Guatemala and the assassination of 280 LGBTQ-identifying people between 2009 and 2017 in Honduras.

Deportations continue

According to the Directorate-General of Migrants and Foreigners in El Salvador, there has been a significant uptick in the number of Salvadorans deported there from the United States. So far in 2019, 6,000 salvadorenos were deported from the United States, up from 5,000 from the year before; and 4,100 have been deported from Mexico, 650 more than the year before.  Together these numbers show a 20% increase in deportations between 2018 and 2019. Support for deportees – including protection and reintegration support for those who have been living elsewhere for months, years or decades – must be a priority for the Nayib Bukele administration, which will take office on June 1st.

Refugees, the face of the exodus

The exodus has shown distinct faces of forced migration in the Americas: whole families, unaccompanied children, young people, LGBTQ populations, and older adults who all face insecurity and vulnerability in their countries and seek protections elsewhere.  According to data from the Mexican Commission on Aid to Refugees (COMAR), Mexico received 29,647 refugee applications in 2018, a 103% increase from 2017.

Mexico has continued to be a destination country for asylum-seekers in 2019.  From January to April, Mexico has received 18,365 refugee applications; currently over 34,000 people in Mexico are waiting for their refugee status to be recognized.

The growing backlog indicates an institutional failure by COMAR in mobilizing the human, financial and technical resources necessary to respond to the influx of applications.

As Mexico becomes a destination country for more refugee populations, strengthening its asylum system and institutions can no longer be postponed..  To this end, international civil society organizations have called for the federal government to end policies of containment and develop institutional capacity to recognize, protect, and promote the well-being of refugee populations.

Protection requires more than just regional work permits

The Mexican administration maintains a positive stance on migration, but its actions don’t align with those pro-migrant values. According to data from the National Institute of Migration (INM), 14,970 people were deported in April alone.  This practice has intensified as the government seeks to implement “orderly migration” policies through programs such as expedited humanitarian visas. Advocates ask, “What will happen to people who – due to security, economic or health reasons – are unable to complete the process of obtaining valid cards?”  

Many who find themselves in these situations are targeted for deportation.  However, the criteria for determining deportation is unclear and subject to different interpretations.  An example of this occurred at the end of April, when a group of around 400 migrants were allowed to continue their journey to the US without having to wait to apply for regularization in Mexico.

Now, humanitarian visas have been suspended and the government has instead moved to offer regional visitor cards, which would only grant mobility to migrants in southeast portions of the country, with already-high levels of unemployment and poverty.

For Mexico to adequately respond to these issues, there must be oversight to ensure humanitarian protections are given to those who need it, and that asylum seekers are not forced to live and work in poor conditions.  It would be a tragedy for those who are fleeing persecution in Central America to end up being a source of cheap and ill-treated labor in Mexico.

These policies all seem to be designed to either deport or contain migrants and asylum-seekers in Mexico, while ensuring they are unable to reach the country’s northern border.  Meanwhile in the United States, the Trump administration continues to return asylum-seekers to Mexico. To date, over 4,000 people have been sent back to Mexico and told to wait for their US asylum applications to be processed.