Monday, July 14, 2014

The Central American refugee crisis

I have been really stricken by the recent developments along the US border, where a flood of children, often unaccompanied by adults, is seeking refuge outside of their Central American homelands.  The media seems to focus on the logistical challenges to the US of "processing" these kids.  This influx appears to be unlike anything our country has faced before.  Frankly, I have somewhat avoided the news on this issue, because I can't handle it emotionally.  It just tears me apart to think about the human suffering of all these kids fleeing violence, and how their families back home must feel without them.  Not to mention the kids who haven't fled and are subject to mutilation and death by ruthless gangs.

But beyond my personal reaction, and the limited knowledge of the issue that I seem to share with many people here in the US, I feel like we're missing the point if we focus too much on the difficulties facing the US border and immigration bureaucracy as it tries to figure out what to do with these kids.  Among other things, this focus can lead us to interpret recent events as an immigration crisis, and distract us from what I think the real issue is:  refugees fleeing a conflict. 

The kids and even adults fleeing Central America right now are not mere economic migrants, looking for more lucrative work in a wealthier country.  Presumably many of the kids weren't working back home, and won't be of working age in the US for some years yet.  No, these are people fleeing a bloody conflict.  As such, my take is that they should be treated not as mere immigrants but as refugees.  Which is to say that they should be accepted into the US at the border, and dealt with as we deal with refugees or asylum seekers.  This would not lighten the burden of processing, or the difficulty for both US immigration officials and refugees as they await processing in temporary shelters or camps.  But it would prevent the refugees from being summarily deported to the dangerous areas they are fleeing. 

Let me play with some numbers to bolster my point.  I feel that northern Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, and part of Guatemala) more closely resemble a war zone than the simple mix of poverty and lack of economic opportunity that drives many migrants.  The level of crime, both organized and unorganized, is far higher than anywhere else in the world.  The official murder rate of 90.4 homicides per 100000 population in Honduras is by far the world's highest.  The rate in San Pedro Sula, the most violent city, almost doubles that.  To compare to a "real" warzone, the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan for the first half of 2014 was 1564.  Double this to get a year's number of 3128 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, divide by the country's 2012 population of 29.82 million, and multiply by 100000 to get a civilian death rate of 10.49 per 100000.  Of course it is not entirely sound to compare one country's murder rate to another country's civilian war death rate, primarily because I don't know how "common" murders are statistically treated in Afghanistan (whether they're considered civilian war deaths or not), what the murder rate is there, etc.  A cursory check would have the Afghan homicide rate relatively low, at 3.4 per 100000.  Even using World Bank data that give 7234 battle-related deaths in Afghanistan for 2011, the most recent year available, the battle-and-homicide-death rate in the country (admittedly mixing years as the data are available) would be "only" 27.66 per 100000 (to compare, Honduras' murder rate would give it about 7174 murders per year, almost equal to Afghan 2011 battle deaths in a country with just over a quarter of the population). 

I am by no means trying to belittle or discount the importance or scale of the Afghan conflict, and I know my numbers are drawn from lots of sources--they are not meant to be definitive, but they give a good idea of the scale of death and suffering in Honduras.  I am merely trying to illustrate that northern Central America right now is a more violent area than even many recognized conflict zones like Afghanistan.  The violence in Central America is not mere street crime; it is the aftermath of long-drawn, bloody civil conflicts that "ended" rather ambiguously barely 20 years ago (with a 2009 coup in Honduras as the most recent civil conflict in the bunch).  As we are seeing in Colombia, the end of formal conflict and the dissolution of formal armed actors (as happened with the AUC paramilitaries in 2006-2008) often gives rise to even more pernicious armed groups that no longer have the banner of a political cause to moderate their brutality.  Furthermore, a culture of violence takes hold after long civil conflicts, such that what would be simple spats in other places turn into bloody murders or massacres.

So why all this number crunching?  Why does it matter if Honduras is more dangerous than Afghanistan?  Am I just making sensationalistic claims, like those who would falsely claim that Chicago is more dangerous than Afghanistan?  Well, because if northern Central America is indeed a conflict zone, then those who flee it should be treated as asylum seekers or refugees (I don't know the fine legal distinction between these two terms).  They are not illegal immigrants, "breaking the law" by crossing a US border, but rather desperate people who are going to the US, to Mexico, to Belize, to Costa Rica, to anywhere they can find that is less dangerous than their homeland.  As this video argues, their plight is really a different issue than the larger immigration reform that is also an important question right now in the US.  Hence the answer to this crisis isn't to tighten our border or Mexico's southern border, which would be an abrogation of both our common decency and the international laws meant to protect refugees from violence.  This interview with the writer of a UN report, seems to come to the same conclusion as I do, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is also calling for a decent, merciful approach to dealing with these poor kids.  I hope someone will listen.

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