From 1999 to 2001, I spent almost six months in Honduras: the country where most of the thousands of people forming the so-called human caravan making its way north through Mexico toward the US border resided. While I was there, I met a young girl who had recently returned from Guatemala City where she and her younger brother had been stranded after the “coyote” their US-based mother had paid, abandoned them. He was to accompany the children to the United States to join their mother but claimed he had been robbed of their money. Fortunately, they made their way safely back to Tocoa, Honduras from Guatemala.
Today, more than half of the caravan migrants are women and children and the collective walk is seen as a safer way of reaching the global north than relying on human traffickers. Data from Casa del Migrante, based in Tijuana, Mexico, reported that 1,822 men, 1,565 women, 770 boys and 952 girls were walking north on 20 October, 2018. Four days later, the Honduran government claimed the number was at least a thousand fewer. While some caravan members have turned back or stopped in Mexico, a second one left from Honduras and there are reportedly three others that have departed from El Salvador.
Mexico has offered temporary permits as a first step toward permanent settlement to migrants who agree to remain in the southern states of Chiapas or Oaxaca through its “Estas en tu casa” [You are at home] plan announced by outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto, on 26 October, 2018.
Shortly after, US President Donald Trump announced that he would be sending from 5,000 to 15,000 troops to the Mexico-US border stating that: “Nobody’s coming in.”
V.P., a volunteer fire fighter in Tegucigalpa, Honduras says what is pushing these people to walk thousands of kilometres is not political: “Ask yourself. No money. No land. No hope. No trust in the system … Do you have anything to lose? Just your troubling life. It is not a political issue. This is a dignity problem.”
With this in mind, the contrasting approaches of the two leaders gave me pause for thought. Mexico is offering to host the migrants and the US is sending in the troops to block them. Their stances reflect a pattern that is playing out across the globe when we consider the migration issue.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are being hosted in the global south, and yet, the global north exhibits strong resistance to accommodating that remaining 15 per cent.
Recent elections in EU countries underline this. The Italian election in March 2018 resulted in a coalition government between the Five Star Movement and the right-wing League party, which bases its platform on anti-immigration rhetoric. In June, League party leader and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denied safe harbor to the charity ship Aquarius, which had rescued 629 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea, forcing its occupants to endure an additional 700 nautical miles to reach Spain. Salvini said Italy’s port closures were motivated by Europe’s lack of support on the migration issue. This past September, six Tunisian fishers were arrested and held for 20 days in an Italian prison for towing a damaged vessel with 14 migrants aboard.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, 1.5 million refugees are being hosted in that nation of 6 million, making it the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world according to the EU’s European Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid Operations. In 2017, Europe accepted just short of 650,000 first-time refugee applicants within its population of over 700 million, with a territory that is 440 times larger than Lebanon.
Even Sweden, a country known for its openness and tolerance has tightened immigration rules and saw the right-wing anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party win 18 per cent of the vote in its September 2018 election.
Back in Canada, where the institutional narrative of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is positive toward immigration, the nation of 36 million was the ninth largest recipient of refugees in 2017, according to the UNHCR accepting 47,800 asylum seekers.
That country’s neighbour to the south allowed entry of a mere 33,000 that same year with a population numbering almost ten times that of Canada’s. But US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric is making an impact north of the border.
According to an Angus Reed poll released in August 2018, 67 per cent of Canadians perceived the irregular border crossings from the US, taking place since 2017, as a “national crisis”. This happened notwithstanding a positive national narrative and factual data that indicated the contrary.
In fact, if we look at the numbers, there are very few “invasions” taking place in the global north, and yet the rise of populist, anti-immigration parties and leaders is rampant while the sense of empathy for the trials of both migrants who are refugees escaping war or other disasters and those who are seeking economic opportunities and a positive future, is dissipating. What is appalling is that it is happening in the part of the world that can afford to do much more: both ethically and economically.
So while northwestern Uganda is handling 400,000 refugees and provides them with settlements rather than camps by giving asylum seekers small allotments of land to build a house on and grow food, Australia is holding refugee claimants on the tiny island nation of Nauru as part of their controversial off-shore processing centers where suicidal behavior is being reported in children as young as eight and ten.
I am certain that there are endless numbers of complex and sophisticated reasons that can be given for this state of affairs, however, if we pause for a minute and think about the facts on migration, the global south is pulling a great deal more of the weight, and they rarely get any acknowledgement from the global north for doing so.
The United Nation’s draft Global Compact on Refugees was finalized on November 1, 2018. Its four key objectives are: easing the pressure on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third country solutions and supporting conditions in countries of origin to allow refugees to return safely and with dignity. By the end of this year, the UN’s 193 members must vote on that Compact.
Such a global project makes sense because migration, like climate change, is a global issue that interconnects us and makes us dependent on one another. The effects of both can easily shift and a nation’s apparent immunity toward either issue can quickly change, making its citizens the new victims of these phenomena.
What the global community does not need is another document full of well-considered statements that do not lead to concrete action. Any single nation cannot resolve the refugee crisis or the migration issue: not Europe’s Italy or Greece, who are carrying the brunt of the European load; nor Lebanon, Uganda or Mexico. Balancing global priorities with national interests in the global north and south is a challenge, but only international determination and recognition that this is a universal human rights issue that must be solved on a global scale can provide any hope of resolving this human tragedy.
The fact is that human beings have been roaming the earth for millennia. The search for our wellbeing, freedom and safety and for that of our children and our families is not only a personal aspiration; it is an inalienable right of every human being.
Any one of us could become the next potential refugee: due to the randomness of our birthplace, natural and human disasters that we have no personal control over, close mindedness, fear and ignorance. Any one of us could be the next member of a human caravan or a dangerous boat ride and remaining indifferent means abdicating our responsibility as global citizens and also negating the very essence of our nature.
Lisa Ariemma is a journalist, educator and researcher. She co-founded “Friends of Honduras” after Hurricane Mitch devastated that nation in 1998 and coordinated the “New Horizons Project” in Tocoa, Honduras. Today, she is the only North American who is a co-founder and member of the “Maydan” Association which is working toward a Manifesto for Mediterranean Citizenship. She lives between Meana di Susa, Italy and Toronto, Canada but considers herself a citizen of the world.