Strengthened deterrence at the southern US border, increased deportations to Honduras and El Salvador, and a political crisis in Nicaragua. ‘Where can displaced people in Central America find safety?’ asks Suzanna Nelson-Pollard, a researcher on displacement in the north of Central America.
A wall may not yet have been built at the US-Mexico border, but recently erected policies to deter migrants are perhaps even crueller. In the past six weeks, 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the border, under the new ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy aimed at deterring all irregular entries to US soil, including people seeking asylum. While an executive order has just been signed stopping the separation of children and parents, extreme deterrence measures persist. It is likely that this won’t be the only trick up the sleeve of the Trump administration and that further efforts will be made to detain, refoul and deport asylum seekers in the months ahead.
Studies have shown, however, that increased border security and enforcement does not deter people from seeking international protection (such as those fleeing the extreme levels of gang violence in the north of Central America). In fact, US Border Patrol call these people ‘non-impactable aliens’. In other words, people fleeing violence and conflict will go through a great deal – an extremely dangerous journey walking for weeks through treacherous terrain, the risk of abuse, violence, destitution and detention – to get their families to safety. The more extreme the measures, the greater the suffering.
An increasingly bottle-necked border in the north isn’t the only political shift that could impact migration across Central America in the coming months. While El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala continue to witness some of the highest murder and crime rates in the world, with violent gangs displacing people internally and across borders, Nicaragua is now also facing a political crisis, which increasingly threatens to displace people. Since protests started in mid-April, more than 170 people have been killed in violence between protesters, police and armed groups linked to the government, with hundreds wounded and detained.
Despite several rounds of talks between the government and different levels of society to try to secure peace and stability, violence has persisted. Roadblocks have been erected stranding 6,000 transport trucks carrying goods across the continent, businesses have shut down, and an informal curfew due to violence on the streets stop people from leaving their houses from late afternoon to morning. Reports have also been made of snipers targeting a peaceful march, as well as drive-by shootings, large-scale fires and kidnappings. According to a report by Amnesty International, violence against government opponents has been state-sanctioned, through physical abuse by police in detention centres, hospitals refusing to treat wounded protesters, and public officials refusing to conduct investigations and autopsies.
Large queues at the Migration Office in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, suggest that many Nicaraguans foresee leaving the country before the situation gets any worse. For those who cannot afford a visa or plane ticket, the easiest route by land is north to Honduras, where due to a free movement treaty, Nicaraguans can enter without a visa. But with Honduras in the midst of its own political crisis, and contending with extremely high levels of violence, poverty and unemployment, it’s unlikely that these people will find refuge there. To add to the situation, the Trump administration recently cancelled the temporary protection status (TPS) for Hondurans and Salvadorans, so these countries can expect to receive thousands of extra deportees in the years to come, posing greater challenges to migration and integration services.
It may be too early to make concrete predictions. And refugee advocates and scholars often call for caution with using terms such as ‘crisis’ for labelling an increased influx of refugees, especially as the word often inflames media frenzy about migration and plays on images of invasion and chaos. But treading carefully to avoid stirring fear mustn’t stop us from planning for swift and efficient action to welcome and integrate new refugees. In fact, last year, as part of a global initiative to improve responsibility sharing for refugees, several countries in Central America agreed to improve conditions for asylum seekers and state responses to forced migration. This pact included plans to prepare for large movements of displaced people, strengthen asylum systems, and encourage collaboration between civil society, states and the private sector to ensure that displaced people can resume their lives in safety and dignity as soon as possible.
It is difficult to see where progress has been made for displaced people in Central America since the signing of the pact, and these recent political changes may have in fact worsened the situation. Moreover, if in the north, the US fails to uphold its international responsibilities to accept and protect asylum seekers, and in the south, the situation in Nicaragua worsens, it’s difficult to imagine where people fleeing violence in Central America can seek safety. Now, more than ever, would be a very good time to see states stepping up to offer international protection, uphold their responsibilities, and ensure that displacement in the region doesn’t get any worse.
Suzanna Nelson-Pollard is a researcher on displacement in the north of Central America and an alumna of the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She previously worked in the Norwegian Refugee Council’s humanitarian policy team in Geneva, and at the Université de Genève as a research assistant on global health. Her recent publications are: Criminal violence in Honduras as a driver of displacement, Forced Migration Review (2017); Lessons from Responsibility Sharing Mechanisms, Norwegian Refugee Council (2017); and Extreme violence, treacherous journeys and invisible borders, Norwegian Refugee Council (2016).
Cover image: Graffiti of Lempira (war chieftain of the Lencas of western Honduras circa 1530), Tegucigalpa, Honduras. S Nelson-Pollard: November 2016.