Sonja Wolf is a researcher at the Mexico City-based Institute for Security and Democracy (Insyde). Visit her website and follow her @scwolf5
Absent States, Stolen Lives: Forced Migration in the Americas
The Spanish Cultural Center in Mexico City is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Childhood” and put together by UNICEF in collaboration with the renowned Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz. The display, organized on occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, comprises 20 photos of children from five continents. The simple yet beautiful images are meant to convey situations of abuse that youth around the world continue to endure, including violence, malnutrition, sexual exploitation, and slave labor.
The children are portrayed with their most cherished belongings; sometimes these are a collection of stuffed animals, at other times music instruments. Featuring in the show is Belize, a country on the northeastern coast of Central America with a 340,000-strong population that boasts lush scenery, yet has dramatic human development needs and is wrecked by drug and gang violence. One of the photos shows Tyrel Arzu, a 13-year-old Garifuna who stands barefoot on a pier, dressed in knee-long denim shorts, a pair of sandals in his left hand, and a white tank top lying to his right on the ground. With a serious look on his face, the youth had stated for the record that he dreams of one day going to the place “called California.”
The recently publicized exodus of undocumented migrant children from Central America –mostly the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras– to the U.S.-Mexico border, has triggered all kinds of reactions. Expressions of solidarity aside, their arrival prompted a deplorable outburst of hate messages, the launch of futile government campaigns warning of the dangers of undocumented migration, and renewed calls within the United States for greater border security. Sorely missing, however, are signs of rational policy debates about the factors for the current migration dynamics and how to tackle them.
One of the factors that have for years been driving people out of their communities of origin is that of poverty and social exclusion, affecting both rural and urban residents. In Honduras, for example, where the 2009 coup that unseated President Manuel Zelaya ushered in a steady decline of the social and human rights situation, UNDP data indicate that 66.5 percent of the population lives in poverty. Unemployment, affecting –along with underemployment– particularly younger sectors of society, stands at whopping 54.1 percent. Experts often counsel those who stay behind to create micro-enterprises for a living. Pervasive extortion, however, stifles most business activity and requires those unable to meet the demands to run for their life.
Generalized violence, another driver of irregular migration, has been raging especially in the countries of the Northern Triangle. In 2013, the per capita murder rate reached 34/100,000 in Guatemala, 43/100,000 in El Salvador and a staggering 79/100,000 in Honduras. Much of the social and criminal violence is perpetrated by members of Barrio Dieciocho and Mara Salvatrucha. These Los Angeles-born street gangs were formed by Latino youth, including many civil war refugees who banded together in the face of discrimination and exclusion in their new homeland. Mass deportations imported both groups into Central America where repressive gang policies helped make them increasingly sophisticated and brutal. Today, they are associated chiefly with homicides, extortion and drug sales. Youth who prefer to stay out of gangs often have no choice but to flee abroad in order to escape forced recruitment or rape. A similar fate has befallen entire families who, intimidated by gangs, had to abandon their homes. More recently, members of the LGBTI community have been forced to escape threats to their life because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
People are at the mercy of violent non-state actors, because those who are meant to protect them fail to do so or prey on the vulnerable. After years of U.S.-sponsored civil wars and repression in the region, police and justice reforms stalled as stronger institutions were not in the interest of the governing elites. Today, these institutions remain weakened by corruption, politicized, and infiltrated by organized crime and street gangs. U.S. security assistance has responded to that situation, but has done so mostly by stepping up law enforcement cooperation in the hope of preventing perceived security threats from reaching the United States. Largely absent are efforts to root out sleaze, address the structural factors of crime and violence or improve prison management and offender rehabilitation.
In the “Childhood” exhibition, 17-year-old Marie Claire from Rwanda pleads: “You, as members of mankind, why have you allowed this to happen?” Her remarks, recalling the atrocities that her country experienced 20 years ago, are apt also in the context of the contemporary exodus from Central America. Calls encouraging people to refrain from making a perilous journey will fall on deaf ears, because “home” offers neither security nor opportunities for a bright and rewarding future. It is time for governments in the region to muster the political will and pool resources in order to genuinely address a shared problem, instead of continuing to shun their responsibility. Too many lives are at stake.