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The Central American Caravan passing through Guatemala and Mexico has exposed an increasing global problem: how the international community is reacting to increasing numbers of displaced persons. Similar situations have occurred globally, from Syria and Myanmar to Australia. There is a real problem when nations take a path of prevention over protection, and it is clear that the system for protecting refugees is broken.
The United States’ populist stance on immigration has been criticised since Donald Trump’s election. His introduction of multiple immigration policies including an anti-Muslim ban, a ban on Syrian refugees and the choice to separate children from their parents at the border have created an unsettling view of how the world can react to these catastrophes. His actions continued this week with his baseless claim that the caravan was full of middle-eastern immigrants, telling them they wouldn’t be allowed in and threatening to cut necessary aid into their country, Honduras.
People seeking asylum in the United States are fleeing years of horrors and instability from often corrupt and unstable governments. Honduras does not provide safety or protection for its citizens, and the caravan is proof that their people have reached their limits, deciding to take their lives into their own hands. A report on Honduras from Human Rights Watch in 2017 named it a constant abuser of human rights, having one of the highest murder rates in the world. Abuses include violence towards the Press, Lawyers, Activists and members of the LGBT community, as well as the suppression of free media. This restriction of the Press is among the most concerning, as twenty-five journalists were murdered between 2014 and 2016, with only 9% of offenders being prosecuted.
Of course, America is not the only player here; Australia has been condemned for its treatment of asylum seekers on the Manus and Nauru Islands, and Palestinian refugees continue to struggle for basic rights while becoming a political pawn in power plays between states. People fleeing Myanmar for their lives in 2015 were stranded for weeks on boats while Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia decided who would take responsibility. Is this the way we want to be remembered in history?
“Worldwide, more than 21 million people have been forced to seek sanctuary abroad, and governments have a duty to help them. But rich countries are still treating refugees as someone else’s problem”. – Amnesty International
Developed nations are the most prepared and able to take the lead with these emergencies, but instead, the responsibility is being placed on already unstable and overcrowded nations. Amnesty International claims that Middle Eastern, African and Asian nations support 86% of all refugees. I believe the problem is aggravated by an increase in populism. Populist governments are on the rise, with an anti-globalist rhetoric of closing borders and putting their citizens first. There is too much ‘us and them’ and not enough ‘we’.
Often, finance serves as a common barrier to the support of displaced persons. There is an obligation to fund institutions such as the United Nations so as aid can be provided when states are unable to help. Indeed, the US has been the biggest financial supporter of the United Nations since its creation, responsible for a massive 22% of its annual operating budget. However, its recent decision to cut $200 million in funding to Palestine is a considerable concern. The move followed an announcement to reduce the UN annual contribution, and Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestine General Delegation to the United States, accused the administration’s decision of “dismantling decades of US vision and engagement in Palestine”.
The belief that we do not have enough money to protect these people is misleading. Oxfam reported that the annual income of the world’s richest 100 people is enough to cure global poverty four times over. Financial contributions are a small but necessary piece of a larger puzzle, and state contributions also cannot be used as a playing piece to be removed when disagreements arise.
The world refugee crisis is a catastrophe in need of a solution. There are an estimated 22 million refugees worldwide, with 1.2 million considered to urgently need resettlement. This number is difficult to comprehend let alone discuss solutions for, but there are many options available to us. For example, Amnesty International outline 8 possible solutions, including opening safe routes to sanctuary, resettlement of displaced persons, allowing travel without documents and combatting social problems including xenophobia and racial discrimination. Many of these may be considered idealistic, but the discussion is important nonetheless.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation Department (OECD) presented some options in their International Migration Outlook 2016 which they characterise as being more realistic. They acknowledge that there are three criteria through which solutions must be assessed; the protection they provide, the acceptability for the host population and the feasibility of implementing them.
Resettlement of displaced persons is one option that is often the simplest yet the most difficult to achieve. The Mexican government has recently offered resettlement to Caravan migrants in two states – Chiapas and Oaxaca. Both states hold UN Refugee Agency offices that provide assistance to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) by increasing access to the asylum process. Where people do not fulfil requirements for refugee status, COMAR offers ‘complementary protection’ which offers similar protection including permanent residency in Mexico. Mexico has done well to offer these two regions as possible solutions, as they already have facilities in place that can help the resettlement process. Where there is more than enough land for everyone on earth, these areas are a good start to integrating them within a community.
Student programmes for refugees also provide a pathway that the OECD say generates the greatest public support of the origin country. These student visas allow refugees to develop skills they already had before any crisis occurred. The OECD estimates that 10% of all displaced Syrian university students benefited from a student visa and estimates that these numbers will increase in future. These visas produce structure for students to develop their skills, focusing on rebuilding their nation whilst still contributing to their current one. The Guardian reported the inclusion of refugees in schools fosters a welcoming community and encourages students to play an active role in mentoring – spending time together in breaks, doing homework together or helping with their English. Laura Armstrong, head of an ESOL at the College of North West London, said that her students “just want to feel they are normal and progress”.
Failure to protect these people could result in catastrophic consequences. Democracy was once seen as the solution to increasing authoritarian rule led by dictators. The very creation of the United Nations was to ensure that separation of people and atrocities such as these would not happen again. These tragedies continue to exist because governments are failing to uphold their commitment to UN principles, outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. The actions of Mexico in assisting the people of the Caravan are the beginning of a more inclusive and accepting community.