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Last Updated: 11/05/2018
On the Migrant Crisis
Daniel Bagheri Sarvestani

The current "crisis" of largely Honduran migrants seeking asylum in the United States has deep roots of political oppression and economic exploitation across the region.

Commentary On The Migrant Crisis

As we speak, thousands of Hondurans and others are marching together and crossing borders in search of refuge. The migrants, many of whom are families, have spontaneously mobilized themselves in sporadic groups (“caravans”) as they make their way towards the US border. Many among them are children and infants. Obviously, the decision to travel in groups was meant as a defensive strategy, given the serious risks facing Central American migrants as they make their way to the US border.

Make no mistake, the vast majority of this group of migrants are refugees and ought to be treated as such. All states implicated in this crisis, including the US, have a responsibility to ensure that the migrants are treated with respect and care within their respective jurisdictions. This is the basic tenet of international law with regards to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

While the US administration has been quick to denounce the migrants as criminals and is threatening to close its southern border, the issue is not an isolated case. Framing the crisis as a criminal undertaking meant to take advantage of the US economic benefits simply masks far deeper issues that are at the core of the problem.

The fact is, the vast majority of Honduran asylum seekers are migrating as an act of desperation. Years of systematic poverty, exploitation and political violence has created an atmosphere of oppression and hopelessness for large sectors of the Honduran society. The US is directly implicated in creating this atmosphere of oppression and poverty in Honduras. Years of assisting and arming authoritarian and even criminal elements inside Honduras, has resulted in the institutionalization of violence and abuse within every major sector of the country’s political economic structure. When considering the current unfolding crisis, it helps to keep in mind the following context:

Political Oppression

The US has invested a great deal in funding and direct training of elite units within the Honduran armed forces, namely, the Cobra and the Tiger regiments, who have been known to use extreme violence in suppressing dissent throughout the country. The US government was also directly implicated in the 2009 military coup that saw the overthrow of the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, causing international outrage. In the aftermath of the military coup, the right wing National Party took control of the Honduran government and initiated a rapid privatization policy that slashed funding for public services across board, including health care and public education. Hondurans, especially among poorer rural communities and the working class, who disproportionately relied on public services to make ends meet, were particularly strained as a result of the neoliberal policies of the government.

The presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party was a result of the controversial elections in 2013 and 2017, and has only served to compound the problems. In fact, every electoral process in Honduras since the 2009 coup has been marred by cases of corruption, fraud, and breach of public trust (see my earlier post on death to democracy). During the 2017 election, the government suppressed public protest, assassinated and imprisoned hundreds of dissidents, and effectively overturned the election results in favor of the current administration. Yet, despite mounting evidence of the government’s gross human rights violations and corruption, US support and financial aid for the Honduran government persists.

Violation of Indigenous Peoples Rights

The current Honduran government’s track record has been especially poor with regards to its indigenous people’s rights and respect for universal human rights. This is a relevant given that the majority of the asylum seekers tend to be from rural and indigenous communities.

The ILO Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples was ratified by Honduras in 1995 and came into effect the same year. Indigenous leaders, like Candido Amador of the Maya Chorti Nation, and early indigenous rights movements were extremely successful in mobilizing the communities and making the government recognize Indigenous Peoples fundamental rights.

During this time, some of the most contentious rights stipulated by the convention were those related to land claims, which were considered fundamental during the 90s and early 2000s. Thanks to the effectiveness of the indigenous movement across Honduras, the state ceded many land titles to Indigenous Peoples.

However, the 2009 coup was undeniably a setback for the movement. The increasingly authoritarian right-wing government notoriously strives to centralize power and implement privatization policies across the country. Rich land owners, who tend to be in one way or another tied to the Honduran political aristocracy and multinational corporations (mostly hydroelectric and mining companies), are the beneficiaries of these policies.

On the other hand, Indigenous Peoples communal claims to land are dismissed and fiercely persecuted. The communal underpinning of Indigenous People’s claims to land is in direct conflict with the interest of the political and economic elites of the country. The authorities do not respect indigenous people’s land claims and the titles. Furthermore, even though ILO 169 remains in force, there are no real systems in place to effectively carry out the government’s responsibilities towards its Indigenous Nations.

As a rule of thumb, Indigenous Peoples land claims are systematically suppressed as soon as they come in conflict with the interests of the political elites or the interests of the large multinational hydroelectric and mining operations. The 2016 assassination of the indigenous Linca leader and renowned Human Rights advocate Berta Cáceres is a just one example of the extent of the oppression faced by indigenous nations under the current administration. Not surprisingly, many of the Indigenous community members, activists, and leaders fear for their lives and are forced to flee their country.

Poverty and Economic Degradation

Due to concessions granted to multinational corporations and private companies across Honduras, environmental exploitation and degradation have become rampant in the country. Most affected by these environmental concerns are rural communities and Indigenous People. Most notably, pollution of rivers and other water systems has forced some of the communities to abandon their traditional reliance on the land for their subsistence. Unable to support themselves, many community members (especially the youth) have resorted to migration as a last resort. Political persecution, lack of economic opportunities, and discrimination against indigenous people are contributing to large scale migrations to the US. The migration crisis is a direct consequence of the Honduran government’s unjust policies, unchecked corruption, and the exploitative behaviour of multinational, private organizations, many of which are headquartered in Canada and/or the US.

Furthermore, many of the youth who are involved in the migration phenomenon become entangled with criminal elements, particularly at the US-Mexico border crossing where organized criminal syndicates hold sway. Most of these youth may not find their way to the US; however, many invariably find themselves at the mercy of organized criminal syndicates who dominate border regions across Central America. These criminal networks exploit the desperate situation of the migrants, who are denied basic protections, and as a result many of them fall victim to human trafficking and/or find themselves pulled into a life of crime. Upon their return to their home countries, without any real outlet to convey their frustrations and access to opportunities, many of the returning migrant youth invariably turn to a life of crime and bolster the ranks of local criminal networks . The migration crisis and the lack respect and protection for refugees is, in a way, resulting in the export of crime throughout the Americas, reinforcing multinational organized criminal networks in this part of the world.

In short, since the US-assisted coup of 2009, Honduras has had three separate elections, all of which have been fraudulent. What’s more, there is an alarming trend towards rampant prosecution of political dissidents and violent repression of the media and activists. The assassination of human rights advocates, like Berta Caceres, and the murder of Indigenous leaders is particularly widespread. Access to justice for the family members of victims is often nonexistent.

The continued US support of authoritarian regimes across Latin America and the unchecked exploitation of Indigenous People’s territories at the hands of multinational corporations will fuel the rising tide of asylum seekers. The events that are unfolding are a direct result of decades of US interference in the internal affairs of Honduras. We cannot treat this crisis as an isolated event, but rather we must examine it within the broader socio-political and economic circumstances that have led to this point. Unless the US administration tackles the underlying issues that have caused degradations in Honduras and other Central American States, no walls can keep the administration safe from the repercussions of injustice both abroad and at home.

Daniel Baghari S., University of Kansas.