OPINION: Sharon McLennan – Stuff, New Zealand
Honduras is a wonderful place for a short visit, despite its reputation as a one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Like New Zealand, it is small, beautiful, with an abundance of natural resources and a warm, welcoming culture. It was a great place to visit with my family for a month in September this year, and a fascinating place to do research and volunteer work.
But it is a very hard place to live, so when news emerged of a caravan of migrants making their way across Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, I wasn’t surprised. Here are my reflections on life in Honduras and the origins and implications of the caravan.
The place migrants are leaving is more important and relevant than the place they are going to. Political corruption and repression, gangs, drug cartels, land pressures and climate change make life very difficult for most Hondurans, and impossible for some. Every Honduran has a story of violence. Business owners sleep on the premises with a gun for protection, and drivers carry extra cash to pay corrupt police if pulled over. People avoid the centre of large cities wherever possible.
For those who have crossed paths with the gangs or drug cartels, dared to protest against the government, or tried to stand up for community rights in the face of mining corporations and dam builders, it is unimaginably difficult.
Rather than being the victim of a migrant invasion, the US is complicit. While local elites and politicians carry much of the blame for the chaos, decades of US meddling has played a significant role. Poverty and inequality in Honduras has roots in the activities of American fruit companies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The current instability can be traced to the 2009 coup, the success of which was partly attributable to US policy.
More recent meddling includes the endorsement of the fraudulent election of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2017. Since that election there has been another increase in political violence and repression. Through close ties with Honduran business elites, US and transnational corporate interests are also linked to the repression of environmentalists and indigenous leaders.
Although the caravan seems huge to us, this is just a drop in the bucket, with more than 300,000 individuals crossing the border illegally from Mexico into the US in 2017 (a historic low – down from 1.6 million in 2000). It is as also just a tiny fraction of the number of undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.
However, this caravan is part of a trend towards migrants and refugees travelling in larger groups, with the journey through Mexico being incredibly dangerous. Rape is common. Amnesty International estimates 60 per cent of women and girls who attempt the journey individually or in small groups are raped en route, and girls as young as 12 take measures to avoid pregnancy.
Individual stories often get lost in the numbers and rhetoric. Focusing on the numbers lends credence to the rhetoric of invasion. It is important to remember that each member of the caravan is a person, with a story, a family, and dreams for the future. The caravan includes many young men, but rather than being criminals many are escaping the gangs, planning to work hard to send money home. Indeed, the remittances that will be sent by migrants and refugees is of far greater value to Honduran development than any official aid, reducing poverty and increasing household spending. The key to reducing future migration may well be development stimulated by the money these migrants will send home.
Finally, this caravan might seem far away and irrelevant to us here in New Zealand, and (as my Honduran husband can attest) the number of Central Americans that reach here is tiny. However, we should take notice, because the global climate that has led to both the emergence of migrant caravans and the racist, anti-immigration rhetoric of Trump and others affects us too.
The rhetoric of Australian politicians and their refusal to show any compassion towards those that attempt to reach their shores should sound a warning here. Generalising and stereotyping migrants and refugees is a dangerous step towards an even more insecure world, where those who already have the good life are protected, and those who don’t are stuck in a no-man’s land of poverty, violence and insecurity. Compassion and recognition of the humanity of refugees and migrants is an important step towards building a more secure future and a peaceful world.
* Dr Sharon McLennan is a development studies lecturer in the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University.
The shrinking space for solidarity with migrants and refugees
How the European Union and Member States target and criminalize defenders of the rights of people on the move
Programmes: War & Pacification
Europe’s “refugee crisis” triggered a wave of solidarity actions by both civil society organisations and ordinary citizens. Their efforts were part of a wave of compassion, as people organised convoys to refugee reception centers, warmly greeted arrivals at train stations and lined highways to provide food and water to those making the journey from Syria and elsewhere. Just a few years later those same activists are treated as criminals and humanitarian search and rescue missions are criminalised.
The current onslaught originated in the intensification of the EU’s restrictive approach to immigration policy from late 2014 and the EU’s treatment of Italy and Greece, front-line states on the EU’s migration routes. Today in Europe, solidarity with migrants and refugees can lead to arrest, legal troubles, or harassment. The actions of national police, judiciaries, political powers and far-right militants have created and compounded hostility to solidarity with refugees and migrants.
This report looks at how EU policy has played out and offers a glimpse into the ways citizens and movements are resisting xenophobic and securitarian policies.
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