Migrant Workers

Seeking Safety, Seeking Opportunity, Seeking Rights - Reflections on the Migrant Caravan in Mexico

Commentary, 18 December 2018

By Evy Peña, Communications Director, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante

On this International Migrants Day 2018, let’s take a moment to consider the struggles of the thousands of men, women and children who in recent months joined the so-called migrant caravan hoping for a better life in North America. 

Violence, poverty, drought and family separation aren’t only reasons why these people chose to flee - these threats also exist along the way for those seeking asylum. Today serves as a reminder, not only to take notice of the plight of migrants around the world, but also to ensure that governments and business have policies and practices in place that put human rights first. 

Thousands of Hondurans left the capital San Pedro Sula on 12th October. The caravan gathered people from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries as well. Their movements garnered media attention in the region and across the globe.

Security threats along the migrant journey have worsened in recent years - the increase in organised crime in Mexico has made it more dangerous for migrants. 

In a general sense, this is not new. For years, people from Central America have been risking their lives in search of better futures elsewhere. They include women who are subjected to systemic gender-based violence and men who have been victims of extortion several times throughout their lives. Their numbers also include young people who refuse to join gangs and parents who can’t send their children to school for fear that they will be kidnapped. Among them as well are small business owners who can no longer sustain their shops given the high fees that cartels demand of them. 

But the security threats along their journey have worsened in recent years. Over the past decade, the increase in organised crime in Mexico has made it more dangerous for migrants. In August 2010, the bodies of 58 men and 14 women migrants were found in the northern municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. These people came from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil. Investigators concluded that the drug cartel Los Zetas murdered these migrants after they refused to join the cartel on their way to the United States.

Migrating en masse and being in the spotlight offers relative safety, a lower risk of being disappeared or kidnapped by cartels along their journey.

Visibility strengthens the caravan and its members. Migrating en masse and being in the spotlight offers relative safety, a lower risk of being disappeared or kidnapped by cartels along their journey. The collective is stronger than an individual. 

A month later, after traveling more than 4,000km north, facing security threats, illness and death, more than 7,000 asylum seekers arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. Some have managed to cross the border, while others are currently staying in nearby shelters or have resolved to remain in Mexico.

This group of people has brought out the true colours of governments at different levels and across borders. The Trump administration chose to condemn the migrant caravan from the start. When asylum seekers reached Tijuana, the U.S. government responded by militarising the border, deploying troops and using tear gas to deter hundreds of migrants from crossing to the United States, as well as separating families. This is yet another way to criminalise those seeking protection. 

The U.S. government responded by militarising the border, deploying troops and using tear gas.

The use of force has been accompanied by threats to close ports of entry at the U.S. southern border and denying the right to seek asylum. U.S. federal law states that immigrants are entitled to seek asylum regardless of how they entered the country. Thus, the U.S. government’s response does not only violate both domestic and international law, it goes against the nation’s tradition to welcome those fleeing from persecution in their home countries.

In Mexico, the issue has put local governments at the forefront of new conversations about migration. While policies on the topic are largely driven by decision makers at the federal level, the migrant caravan has revealed the willingness of Mexican state and municipal authorities to aid asylum seekers. Some authorities have provided health services and job opportunities to individuals requiring assistance, while others have chosen to cover travel expenses to assist with onward journeys.

Some authorities have provided health services and job opportunities to individuals requiring assistance, while others have chosen to cover travel expenses to assist with onward journeys. 

Governments should in no way obstruct the right to seek asylum or the right of individuals to have their claims appropriately processed. It should be noted that where governments aren’t doing enough, civil society groups have taken the lead, filling the gaps left by state authorities. Like migratory flows from Central America to the United States, groups providing legal support, shelter and other basic services to those in need are not new. However, the size of the caravan - and the visibility it gained - served as a call to action for other actors.

When volunteering, while thousands of asylum seekers where passing by Mexico City, the team from my organisation Centro de los Derechos del Migrante1 (CDM) observed how a diverse group of actors, including businesses from different sectors, stepped up to provide help. Restaurant owners fed hundreds of families. Doctors and nurses treated injuries and illnesses along the way. Dentists provided free check-ups. Psychologists offered therapy to children who have suffered trauma. 

Businesses in Mexico, including factories in the north, have expressed their willingness to employ migrants who choose to stay in the country. We need to see more business leaders do the same.

For the private sector, this is just the beginning. Businesses in Mexico, including factories in the north, have expressed their willingness to employ migrants who choose to stay in the country. We need to see more business leaders do the same. As they prepare to welcome new workers into the labour force, it will be essential for businesses to ensure that labour standards - wages, recruitment protections, workplace conditions - are fair for migrant workers. 

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. We all have the right to leave any country, including our own, and return home. Migration is a human right. Governments and businesses must ensure that the rights of migrant people and families are respected along their journey. 

 
 
  1 Evy Peña is Communications Director at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) based in Mexico City. CDM supports Mexico-based migrant workers to defend and protect their rights as they move between their home communities in Mexico and their workplaces in the United States.
 
Photo: Flickr/Daniel Arauz

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