On 13 October, a caravan of approximately 7,000 Central American migrants, including women and unaccompanied minors, departed from San Pedro Sula (Honduras) on its way to the United States. These migrants, who are fleeing extreme poverty and gang-related violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, are enduring dire humanitarian conditions and are exposed to the risk of violence, rape and other acts of torture along their weeks-long journey. Nonetheless, with President Trump’s intention to please his anti-immigrants electoral base in view of the mid-terms elections last month, the odds are that migrants will be unlikely to be granted refugee status in the United States.
This is the second organized march of migrants taking place in the region this year: traveling in a caravan is seen as a safer option than traveling alone or in small groups, and a cheaper one than resorting to pay up to US$9,200 to a smuggler. Currently stuck in migration camps in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, migrants in the caravan are experiencing dire humanitarian conditions, as they struggle with scarcity of food and drinking water, mostly rely on help from the local population, and are exposed to violence and discrimination. Frustrated by weeks of uncertainty and by a very slow asylum process, a group of them tried to cross the border illegally, but were picked up by U.S. border patrol.
Several are the reasons why a large number of Central Americans are fleeing their countries, mostly to escape extreme poverty, political repression and, increasingly so, gang violence. An increasing number of women, including unaccompanied minors, and LGBTI people set off to the United States to escape sexual violence in their home country at the hands of gang or intimate partners. While sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls and LGBT people is extremely common in Central America’s Northern Triangle, rooted as it is in the machistaculture and in the existing set of inequalities marginalizing women and LGBTI people, gang-related sexual violence is extremely brutal and is seldom reported to the authorities because of the fear of retaliation and of possible collusion between gang members and the police.
As a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the United States are under an obligation to protect people who are outside of their country and are afraid of going back, due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality or membership to a particular social or political group. Under US immigration law, asylum seekers at a port of entry within the US border must demonstrate a “credible fear” to return home.
Nevertheless, migrants in the caravan may face slim chances to succeed in requesting asylum in the United States, due to the instrumental political connotations that the debate has taken on in Washington, D.C. US President Donald Trump has questionably claimed on his Twitter account that migrants in the caravan are “unknown Middle Easterners”, adding in a Rally in Arizona that “a fairly big percentage of those people are criminals”and that he intends to cut aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala for not stopping the caravan. As for the migrants’ right to asylum, President Trump has declared that he intends to deploy 800 to 1,000 United States Army troops to seal the Southern border in order to prevent migrants from requesting asylum, stating that migrants in the caravan should request asylum in Mexico, or they will be turned away at the US border. Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director Margaret Huang has referred to Trump’s proposed asylum ban as “the culmination of years of hateful policies” and “a direct violation of national and international law”.
While Trump’s recent declarations are in line with his government’s rhetoric regarding Mexican and Central American migrants – already on 11 June US Attorney General Jeff Sessions had announced that domestic and gang violence are no longer ground for asylum– they must be read as a well-orchestrated political strategy aimed at gaining support from certain categories of undecided voters in view of the crucial 2018 US Midterms elections which were held on 6 November, unveiling the reality of a politically divided country. All of this happens at the expenses of the rights – and of the lives – of thousands of Central Americans.