WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

2 Apr 2018 | Commentary

Migrant Caravans Highlight a Humanitarian Problem, Not a Security Threat

A group of mostly Central American citizens has formed a “caravan” traveling through Mexico, primarily organized by the non-governmental organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, with the goal of migrating or seeking protection in the United States or Mexico. This prompted President Trump to comment on border security and immigration policy issues several times since April 1.

This is not the first time that migrant rights groups have organized such caravans in order to highlight the dangers that migrants face when journeying through Mexico—including numerous cases of kidnappings, robbery, extortion, and sexual assault—and to draw attention to the humanitarian issues that are driving families and minors to flee their homes in Central America. Nor does the estimated number of people traveling in the caravan (about 1,200, although by many accounts this is a fluid number) represent a dramatic “surge” of migrants: these people would likely have traveled northwards in search of refuge, regardless of whether or not this caravan had been organized.

The rising number of asylum-seekers requesting protection in Mexico or the United States is a humanitarian problem, not a security threat. Asylum-seekers are leaving their homes and seeking protection because countries like El Salvador, Venezuela, and Honduras are among the most violent places in the world. Children and young adults are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or extortion by criminal groups like the MS-13, forcing them to flee for their lives. According to global violence monitoring group Small Arms Survey, in 2016 the world’s most violent countries included three Latin American nations: El Salvador was ranked second, Venezuela third, and Honduras fourth. The first and fifth countries, Syria and Afghanistan, are at war.

Political instability in Honduras may also be driving people to seek protection. According to Buzzfeed, about 80 percent of the migrants participating in the caravan come from Honduras, a country experiencing increased violence and unrest following a contested presidential election in November. “Many said they are fleeing poverty,” Buzzfeed reports, “but also political unrest and violence that followed the swearing in of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández after a highly contested election last year.” According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Office, post-electoral unrest has led to 22 deaths at the hands of state security forces, with 60 more injured and thousands arrested.

Mexican immigration data points to a sharp post-December increase in numbers of Honduran migrants traveling through the country. In February alone, 5,078 Hondurans were apprehended in Mexico, a 78 percent jump from the number of apprehensions recorded before the elections at the end of November.

While the number of Hondurans apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has not increased as dramatically, the rate at which Honduran families and unaccompanied minors are arriving is unusual for this time of year.

Central American asylum-seekers aren’t just trying to get to the United States. A sharply rising number are asking for protection in Mexico. Last year in Mexico, petitioners for asylum increased 66 percent compared to 2016, and 326 percent compared to 2015. Mexico’s refugee agency is doing what it can, but is under-staffed, under-resourced, and overwhelmed. Mexico also continues to apprehend and deport migrants, deporting 16,278 people in January and February, 97 percent of them from Central America.

Even with rising asylum requests in both Mexico and the United States, overall migration levels at the U.S-Mexico border are at record lows. Simply put, there is no migration “crisis” at the border. Last year, the number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border was at its lowest level since the early 1970s, and less than one-fifth what it was in the year 2000.

However, the profile of migration has changed, with rising numbers of unaccompanied children and members of family units arriving. Of those apprehended in 2017, an unprecedented 39 percent were children and members of family units, up from less than 2 percent between 2003 and 2009.

We can see this same trend continuing based on the migrant apprehension data available for 2018. February alone saw 8,500 children and members of family units apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, a number far greater than the 1,200 “caravan” participants currently traveling together.

When they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, nearly all of these families and children deliberately seek out immigration authorities to petition for protection, because they are facing serious threats from violent crime, or political instability, back in their countries of origin. What is happening at the border is a humanitarian issue that extends all the way back to the violence-afflicted neighborhoods of Central America. It is not a national security issue for the United States.

Explore WOLA’s other resources on border security and Central American migration:

*Maureen Meyer contributed to this piece.