Guatemala Begins Clearing Migrant Caravan On Blocked Road

On 18 January, Guatemala security forces cleared a road occupied by migrants from a large caravan, comprised mainly of Hondurans entering the country and camped overnight. Security forces were seen wielding shields and descending the road toward them by the Vado Hondo village. Migrants were prompted to assemble by increased hardships in Honduras, already rampant with poverty and gang violence. It now faces an economic downturn wrought by COVID-19, compounding damage from two November hurricanes. The caravan also endeavoured with hopes of a stronger embrace from newly elected United States President Joe Biden than his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Notwithstanding, early Tuesday, buses, and police transported migrants to the Guatemala-Honduras border crossing of El Florido. They were then passed from Guatemalan to Honduran border agents and boarded buses returning them to their hometowns. While small groups proceeded toward Mexico’s border, over 2,300 migrants were returned to Honduras. The dispersion marks Guatemala’s latest effort to disband the caravan, reportedly gathering approximately 8,000 people within hours of departing for the U.S.

Before the caravan’s formation, Guatemala asserted its determination to stop it due to immigration and health concerns. Demanding Honduras to “contain the mass exit of its inhabitants,” President Alejandro Giammattei also implored Central American governments “to take measures to avoid putting their inhabitants at risk amid the health emergency due to the pandemic.” Acknowledging the “distressing moment” and expressing a desire for dialogue with migrants, Leila Rodriguez from Guatemala’s human rights office pleaded with them to ”accept some of the needs of the Guatemalan people right now.”

Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo expressed surprise when Honduras declined to help to stop the caravan, following earlier discussions. However, Honduran Border Police head Julian Hernandez told Reuters over 800 security personnel confronted it at Guatemala’s border, but migrants pushed through, some using children “as shields.” Micheal Kozak, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs commended Guatemala for “carrying out its responsibilities by responding appropriately and lawfully to the recent migrant caravan.” Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department (MFRD) recognized Guatemala’s actions as “outstanding work,” saying it “acted firmly and responsibly toward the contingent of migrants that violated its sovereignty.”  

Many migrants lacked negative COVID-19 test results required to enter Guatemala. The Health Ministry reported 21 seeking medical attention, all revealing positive test results.  Concurring with the MFRD, President Giammattei expressed valid concern for these “violations of national sovereignty,” but they should focus on containing COVID-19. Although Guatemala’s actions against migrants fleeing subpar conditions with little food and water are harsh, their unregulated entry risks spreading COVID-19 not only there, but in other bodies, the caravan seeks to pass through.

Perhaps, instead of returning the migrants to Honduras, they could have been permitted asylum and taken to hospitals for testing. Following negative test results, they could have been given a choice either to stay in Guatemala or leave for another country, whereupon negative test results would be required for entry. On Tuesday, Joe Biden is expected to discuss refugee resettlement and asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Although Donald Trump’s aggressive policies encouraged Guatemala’s crackdown on caravans for the past year, perhaps Joe Biden’s leniency will influence them and other countries to modify immigration approaches.

A United Nations situation report tracking up to 13 January stated that over four million Hondurans were affected by hurricanes Eta and Iota. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, and 88,000 were in shelters earlier this month. Sociologist and former dean of the San Pedro Sula campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras Isabella Orellana highlighted issues pre-existing the hurricanes, concluding that “[T]he crisis in Honduras is a permanent crisis.”

Speaking with Al Jazeera, asylum seeker Lucia Andino reported that she and her relatives travelled 27 miles into Guatemala before encountering blockage by military and police, entrapping them on the highway for about two days. Observing the movement of military police following the dispersion, Andino posited “going back to living under a bridge” as she awaited transportation returning her to Honduras. Thousands of others share Andino’s plight, residing under bridges or roadsides, as many areas remain uninhabitable, due to mud left by floodwaters. Orellana indicated it cannot be cleared with mere shovels, and that “[H]eavy equipment” is needed for removal.

Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Esther Olavarria said President Biden is expected to sign an executive order rescinding the Trump proclamation suspending certain immigrants and work visas. On Friday, he discussed immigration issues on a call with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. In addition to discussing the need for identifying “root causes” of migration from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, Biden offered four billion dollars to aid their development. As The Associated Press noted, caravans comprise a small amount of undetected illegal immigration. Perhaps, they can also collaborate to ensure appropriate treatment for refugees, while ensuring to contain the spread of COVID-19 and respect for all nation’s sovereignty.