Lessons from the Central American Exodus for Global Migration Governance


Lessons from the Central American Exodus for Global Migration Governance

As governments gather in Marrakech to consider adoption of a new Global Migration Compact, we should reflect on the horrific images of children and families in this current exodus from Central America and insist on global migration governance that is firmly grounded in the protection of rights and that rejects the criminalization of migration.

Central American families and migrant communities are in acute and systemic crisis. The poverty, corruption and violence that plagues countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua has been exacerbated by decades of short-sighted, punitive economic and immigration policies from the United States. There are at least ten thousand people on the move across Central America and Mexico right now.  Many of them are in conditions of extreme vulnerability. When the situation in the home country reaches a level of desperation, people will and must be able to move.  Safe, orderly, and regular migration requires protections and pathways for people who are forcibly displaced.  Regular migration will not be achieved through the criminalization, detention, return, exclusion and limitations of rights of migrants based on their irregular status, or continuous restrictions and narrower interpretations of conditions to access international protection.

Other specific lessons to take from the Central America-Mexico-US migration corridor:

  • People fleeing violence must be provided opportunities to present themselves to immigration authorities to express their fears, not illegally turned away at ports of entry or criminalized for entering between ports of entry to seek asylum.The practice of returning individuals to danger without screening for protection concerns constitutes a violation of the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement. This is true for all countries, all along the migration route.
  • Increased border militarization comes at great cost to programs that benefit local communities and families. Deploying military forces or escalating law enforcement or immigration enforcement agencies to the border wastes public resources, endangers the rights of border communities, and does nothing to make anyone safer. The recent incident that ended in children fleeing from tear gas should remind us of these dangers.
  • People have the right to leave their country of origin and should be able to seek protection in a country where they feel safe. Governments should uphold freedom of movement, which includes the right to leave their country, to seek asylum in another country, to not to be detained indefinitely, and to not be returned to danger. Due process guarantees and the protection of family unity must be ensured.
  • Detention for immigration infringements does not deter migration and does result in pervasive and systemic human rights violations. The United States government has stated its intent to use detention and family separation as a deterrent to migration. Commitments for global migration governance must work toward the elimination of detention of both children and adults. It would be a tragic failure for the Compact to reify detention as a standard policy tool to deter immigration.
  • Current efforts to facilitate returns continue to ignore human rights. As desperate families face endless delays to seek asylum or humanitarian protections, many will seek “voluntary” return or simply be apprehended and deported. This is an area that cries out for new mechanisms of cooperation that take into account both immediate protections, and the right to family unity and to family life. Emphasis on effective and efficient cooperation on returns fails to consider the conditions that returned migrants encounter in their country of origin. The challenge is not how to process deportations swiftly or pressure migrants into returning after enduring inhumane treatment, but rather how to create conditions that make migrants’ return safe and sustainable and that enable them to rebuild their lives. Hence the importance of international cooperation.
  • Countries must recognize co-responsibility for creating conditions that drive migration, including through foreign assistance programs. In the case of the United States, many decades of failed policies toward Central America play a central role in the current crisis. But all the countries of the region must also bear responsibility for corruption, impunity, land grabs, and the lack of opportunities for decent work that drive displacement.  Many experts describe a crisis of faith in institutions and loss of hope for the future in Central America. Reversing that trend should be a top priority for those who wish to make migration orderly, safe, and regular.

The United States is not currently a part of the Migration Compact process.  But that does not mean that civil society can let it off the hook.  In fact, we commit to redoubling our efforts to press the US to implement these rights-respecting actions, even as we press for renewed U.S. engagement in multilateral spaces.

The world turns a hopeful eye to Marrakech this week, but it is far from clear yet if the  Global Compact for Migration will have a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of migrants and on sending and receiving communities in the Central America-Mexico-US corridor.  The Compact is not binding, and the funding for its more innovative and ambitious provisions has yet to be lined up.  The true test will come with the nuts and bolts of national implementation, follow up, independent monitoring and review. Civil society organizations, and especially the organized migrant communities who have so much at stake, must be a part of this process if it is to have a chance of laying the groundwork for improved international cooperation for migration governance.