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October 19, 2019

No empathy


October 19, 2019

Exactly one year ago, 160 men, women and children set off from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, in the first widely televised Central American human caravan.

By the time the migrants reached the border of Guatemala and Mexico, their numbers had swelled to 7,000. The optics of their journey drastically changed US policy and suffocated political appetite to help the hundreds of thousands fleeing gang warfare, trafficking and natural disasters across the region.

I travelled the migrant route from El Salvador to Mexico last month, following in the footsteps of these families to better understand what drives so many to flee. What I learned on this journey should serve as a wake-up call to US policymakers about the crisis deepening in their own neighbourhood.

Most of the women, men and children I met in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico undertook the desperate flight because they feared for their lives, not because they wanted American jobs or to live the “American dream”. The mothers and fathers I spoke to recounted stories similar in horror to the warzones I know from the Middle East and Africa.

In Chiapas, Mexico, I met a single mother who fled Honduras with her 11-year-old son after an armed gang threatened to take the child if she did not keep up extortion payments from the earnings of her small grocery store. On the run in Guatemala, she was forced into hard labour and abused by human traffickers. By the time we met in Mexico, she was beyond terrified, fearing for her life as both groups had assassins working for them across regional borders.

Sadly this mother’s story is not unique. Some 700,000 people fled their homes in northern Central America last year alone, mostly because of brutal violence. Over 10,000 people were killed over the same period. The region holds some of the worst violence statistics in the world.

The number of asylum applications from northern Central America is only comparable with countries at war, according to the UNHCR. Despite the haemorrhaging of human lives, the US continues to champion its war on asylum-seekers.

Declaring El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “safe third countries”, it aims to cut off access to the US asylum system before families can even reach the border. This is in addition to building walls and cutting off aid to the countries from where people flee. These measures will only fuel hopelessness and drive the impulse to escape for safety in the north.

Excerpted from: ‘US’s denial of Central America’s crisis will backfire’.


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