Fortress America: The US’s Willful Exclusion of Children Seeking Refuge from the Child Murder Capitals of the World

Central_american_migrants_mexicoOn July 28, 2016, the International Crisis Group released a detailed report on contemporary refugee flight from Central America. Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration, presents a stark picture of the tragedy unfolding to the immediate South of the US and is a troubling account of the US’s complicity in serious human rights violations.

The latest in a long series of studies of the mass, northbound distress migration of Central American families and unaccompanied children, the report covers much familiar ground. Since the Spring of 2014, when President Obama pronounced the large influx a “humanitarian crisis,” evidence of the extreme violence endemic in the migrants’ places of origin has been overwhelming.

In a survey of more than 400 separated or unaccompanied migrant Central American and Mexican children, 69 percent of those from El Salvador, 60 percent of those from Guatemala, and 43 percent of those from Honduras cited violence as a reason for leaving home. El Salvador and Guatemala rank one and two on a list of the top ten countries in the world with the highest rates of child and adolescent murders, according to UNICEF. The third nation on that list is Venezuela. Already distressed people who are in many cases literally fleeing for their lives meet further brutalization at the hands of kidnappers, extortionists, and sex traffickers, sometimes with the cooperation of authorities.

Gruesome details about the risks of the journey, particularly for unaccompanied children and for young women, are also heartbreakingly familiar. Migrant women and young people are forced into the sex trade by coyotes, the same smugglers they have paid to ensure “safe” passage along routes lined with bars, strip joints and brothels. Some teenage sex workers report being forced to service up to 30 clients per day.

A last resort for many migrants heading north are the cargo trains collectively known as “La Bestia,” overpacked, aging vehicles that attempt to speed through terrain patrolled by street gangs and drug cartels. Passengers clamber aboard the moving vehicles or perch on the roof, many losing limbs in the process.

And wrenching accounts of the impact on Central American children and their mothers of US family detention in remote and harsh desert locations also continue to emerge.  What the report adds to this dire catalogue is a vivid account of the impact of the US’s de facto migration interdiction policy and the extreme consequences resulting from it.

Whereas the US deported over 75,000 Central Americans in 2015, Mexico removed 166,000, including around 30,000 children and adolescents. The fact that Mexico is the US’s buffer zone, its cordon sanitaire, is bad enough, given the vastly disproportionate resources available to the US and Mexico, respectively, to provide safe and protective conditions for large numbers of destitute distress migrants.  What is worse is that Mexico is now so overstretched and over capacity that even the very low level of care for fleeing refugees in its custody is now severely and adversely impacted. The report’s findings on this score are compelling and demand immediate attention.

Guatemalan boy

The overall message is that Fortress America is willfully violating its obligations under the international Convention on the Status of Refugees, a statute that is binding on the US.  The report also shines a spotlight on how the US is turning its back on the acute protection needs of some of the hemisphere’s most vulnerable children.

This topic has long been a focus of research and advocacy by Harvard FXB Center, which recently co-authored a concise statement of widely approved international principles that specifically address the protection needs and rights of vulnerable child migrants.

Those principles, together with the commentary that explains them, supplement the broad brush recommendations set out by the ICG report, highlighting the specific duties states have vis à vis children forced to flee their homes, whether they are in dangerous settings prior to departure, in transit, at an international border or in a destination country.

Most critical – a point not made explicit in the ICG report – is the imperative of providing expert legal representation and individual guardianship for unaccompanied child migrants. The principles also emphasize the international norm against detention of migrant children and the prohibition on summary refusal of access or removal of children at the border.

These principles need explicit attention if the powerful findings of the ICG report are going to contribute to enduring protections of vulnerable migrant children. This is particularly urgent, given the US government’s regrettable insistence at a UN meeting last week that it would not support a complete ban on immigration-related detention of children.

Easy Prey comes at a time when national leaders and international organizations are intensely focused on the search for solutions to the so-called migration and refugee crisis, a humanitarian tragedy that has been headline news for nearly 2 years. Some extreme suggestions have made it to the political mainstream, even though they defy established principles of law and basic tenets of a democratic commons.

Donald Trump’s solution is a dual blockade: construction of a massive wall to separate the US from its southern neighbor, and the imposition of an equally draconian legal and administrative ban on the entry of all Muslims by whatever frontier. If this approach were implemented, Fortress America would turn its back not only on new entrants but on key American constituencies, Latino and Muslim in particular.

Only somewhat less draconian is the solution being promulgated across the Atlantic. The European Union’s solution to the large movements of distress migrants  is a qualified blockade, a “one for one” bargain that blocks entry of spontaneous asylum seekers at the Union’s southern border, however strong their claim to refugee protection,  while agreeing  (in principle) to the resettlement from Turkey, of duly processed refugees from certain areas.  With Turkey fast spiraling into authoritarian dictatorship and irrefutable evidence that key migrant related impacts of this grand bargain include increased migration fatalities and smuggling premiums, this approach also violates fundamental and long cherished principles.

Other suggested solutions are more equitable and holistic.  Most notable among them is the impressive compilation of reflections and recommendations set out in the UN Secretary General’s May 2016 report, In Safety and Dignity: Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.  This background paper for the upcoming September 19, 2016, high level special UN General Assembly session on large-scale migration rightly emphasizes both the inevitability and the desirability of human mobility and migration in a globalized and interconnected world.

Another welcome feature of the report is its insistence on a holistic approach to the management of migration, one based on engagement with issues of substantive inequality and injustice as much as with demographic imperatives, solidarity obligations and integrated and multisectoral solutions.

The UN report calls for the establishment of two new global compacts, one on refugee challenges and the other on the management of migration. Among a plethora of creative and far-reaching proposals, its calls for greatly enhanced resettlement programs for refugees and for integration of migration into a sustainable development agenda are noteworthy. The Children on the Move Principles are intended to complement and strengthen the report’s proposals for the prevention of harm and protection of all migration affected children.

As the ICG report shows, nothing in Fortress America’s current approach to the humanitarian crisis on its doorstep or across its eastern ocean boundary accords with this realistic, enlightened and generous perspective. A sad reflection of the current failure of leadership by the world’s largest nation of immigrants.

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