I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to attend a UN student seminar on migration in the context of Central America. I am extremely interested migration, as a sociology, philosophy, and global studies student, and particularly the issues surrounding forced migration as it intersects with all three pillars of the United Nations: human rights, peace & security, and development. I have been considering doing postgraduate research on Australia’s policies and response to forced migration around the world, and the student seminar was a great way for me to extend my knowledge of migration around the world, and more specifically look at migration in the context of Central America. Here is a bit of a reflection of the seminar and what I learnt…
Changing the Way We Perceive Migrants
Before delving into any discussion about the issues surrounding migration, and particularly forced migration, it’s important to ensure we perceive migrants different to the way they are often portrayed by the media, society, and governments. There are a lot of problems surrounding migration, from the root causes of migration, the violations of human rights they often face, to the ways in which they are able to integrate into new societies- but this doesn’t mean that migrants themselves are a problem. Migrants should be treated with dignity, and seen as people with huge potential to bring something valuable with them when they relocate to a new place. Historically, migrants where once considered to be heroic: we saw them as pioneers, explorers, travelers, and pilgrims. Now we label people who migrate as refugees, asylum seekers, or “illegal aliens,” when legality is merely a social construct and isn’t a moral indication of whether someone or something is inherently good or bad, right or wrong. We are living in a world where xenophobia is considered a normal part of patriotism, and this ethically unjustifiable attitude towards others allows us to validate our inhumane policies and treatment towards individuals who are forced to migrate across our imagined borders.
Migration in the Context of Central America & the US Immigration System
People migrate for a plethora of social, political, economic, and environmental reasons. People can be forced to migrate because they face poverty or famine and cant have their basic needs met. People flee because they are seeking safety from things like war, violence, or political persecution. People may migrate because they are seeking freedom of expression particularly in a religious context. People may be forced to migrate as a result of environmental factors like natural disasters, mining, or the effects of climate change.
Historically, the United States has a strong connection to many Central American countries like Guatemala, through neocolonization, which allowed them to maintain economic and political domination because a lot of Guatemalan land and industry was owned by foreign US investors. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) also influenced migration in Central America. NAFTA created a borderless economy between Canada, the United States, and Mexico, so that anything except people and drugs could be imported or exported between these countries, and CAFTA was the expansion of NAFTA to five Central American nations (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua), and the Dominican Republic. NAFTA negatively impacted farming and industry in Mexico, allowing US and Canadian markets to become overly competitive and turn into systems of modern slavery, and CAFTA lead to the displacement of local economies within Central American countries- two major push factors for migration.
There are a lot of shifting trends relating to Central American migration, most of which are attributed to the current political climate of the United States, and their newly enforced travel bans. Some of these changes include:
- Mexico, which was once a transit zone for those passing through to the US, is now shifting to a final destination since people can’t move further north. There is also a high concentration of migrants in cities like Mexico City, due to difficulty entering the US or deportation from the US, and the Mexican government is not equipped for this influx.
- Because it is now harder for people from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe to arrive in the US by air, they are now flying to Mexico and making the journey to the US on foot.
- There have also been increases in voluntary returns from the US, since people fear deportation and their family being separated, and reintegration can be very difficult for these people.
- There has been an increase in exploitation and extortion of migrants. From people and gang members who help people move from their home, to US immigration workers on the ground and working in administration- they are abusing the system and profiting from desperation of migrants seeking a better future
The US immigration system is a broken system with little value for human life or human rights, there are limits for the different types of visas available, and the processing time is ridiculously lengthy (with people waiting up to a decade). The implementation of methods to decrease the amount of migrants entering the US or Canada doesn’t actually decrease migration; it just means that migration becomes more dangerous for those who are forced to migrate.
The United Nations & Global Compact on Migration
Migration, particularly forced migration, lies at the intersection of all three pillars of the United Nations; human rights, peace and security, and development. The root causes of forced migration can be human rights violations, conflict and war, and poverty. The policies that many countries currently have in place to address forced migration often result in a violation of human rights, and successful migration can actually be a solution for global development and an alternative to living in poverty; but despite this interconnected nature of forced migration and the three pillars of the United Nations, migration has only become a topic of interest amongst the United Nations in recent years. In September 2016 the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants was formulated at the summit, and it expressed the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility for migrants on a global scale.
Hearing from both Dr Eva Sandis, a founding member of the NGO Committee on Migration, and Mary Bingham Johnsen, a member of the executive committee on the NGO committee on Migration and a co-convener of its subcommittee on the Global Compact for Migration, was really insightful, particularly hearing about the Now and How. The Now and How is ten acts that describe the vision of civil society for a UN Global Compact for Human Mobility and Migration. The ten acts of the Now and How covers; addressing the root causes and drivers of human mobility, creating safe pathways for human mobility, protecting the human rights of migrants, promoting decent work and labor rights, ensuring decent living conditions and access to justice, providing quality education and skill development, promoting inclusion and taking action against discrimination, acting to foster transnational and sustainable development, developing global principles on the governance of rights, returns, and reintegration, and a strong consideration for the rights of children and gender-responsive policies.
Advocacy, & Working to Solve the Issues Surrounding Migration
The most important thing I took from the student seminar was that there is no single solution for addressing the issues surrounding forced migration, because it is not a single sided issue. At the intersection of all three pillars of the United Nations (human rights, peace and security, and development) the issues surrounding migration in the context of Central America, and around the world, need to be addressed from all three of these angles: prevention by addressing the root causes of migration (conflict & development) and increasing mobility by implementing policies that promote human rights (rather than nationalist and xenophobic values.) Civil society is already involved in a tremendous amount of work at the both the grassroots level and working with the UN to address this. Organisations are involved in attending meetings, meeting diplomats and UN staff, letter writing, policy briefs, making public statements, and speaking on panel discussions.
Where do we go from here? Action needs to be taken by both policy makers and at a grassroots level to carry out the ten acts described in the Now and How, to achieve the vision of civil society for the UN Global Compact for Human Mobility and Migration, and promote safe, orderly, and regular migration within Central America.