It seems easy to forget that amid the political wrangling in Washington, the deceptive rhetoric, the mixed signals, the inability to forge a sensible and workable policy on the US border, thousands of children sit waiting to know whether or not they’re about to be sent back to the violent hellholes – slowly becoming failed states – that they fled. It is important to understand why it is those people are fleeing.
Since October, 57,000 Central American children have arrived at the US border fleeing violence and poverty on a growing scale. The murder rate of children in Honduras continues to rise. They have very little choice but to be forced into violent street gangs, or flee. They often hike through dangerous terrain, with no food or water, their lives at risk for the desire to be free. Indeed, the desire to be free, and to live in peace and with dignity will always push people to brave the harshest of conditions in order to reach that light at the end of the tunnel. For children to do so unaccompanied, indicates a crisis on a massive scale. It seems to me to be the duty of countries that push for human rights improvements across the World, to protect those children when their homelands cannot do so.
In 2011, UNHCR released a report titled ‘Children on the Run’ that concluded:
“… the many compelling narratives gathered in this study – only some of which are relayed in this report –demonstrate unequivocally that many of these displaced children faced grave danger and hardship in their countries of origin. Fourth, there are significant gaps in the existing protection mechanisms currently in place for these displaced children. The extent of these gaps is not fully known because much of what happens to these children is not recorded or reported anywhere. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the gaps may be even wider than what the available data indicates.”
“Forty-eight percent of the displaced children interviewed for this study shared experiences of how they had been personally affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors. Twenty-one percent of the children confided that they had survived abuse and violence in their homes by their caretakers.”
- Displaced children are often forgotten, as indicated by the UNHCR report noting that their status back in their home countries, is not recorded anywhere. Deporting children back to the countries they fled, knowing there are no real institutional mechanisms to protect them once they return, is to freely hand them back to the gangs that abuse them. The humanitarian concerns are real, the mechanisms by which the international community protects those children are failing.
More than 2000 children arrived at the US-Mexico border from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, a city that has the highest homicide rate in the World. Political and security force corruption and instability between branches of government was visible when the Lobo Presidency voted to oust four Supreme Court judges who rejected the President’s plan to deal with a very corrupt police force. A police force responsible for 149 deaths in just two years, and with ties to organised crime in the region. When the vote came to depose the judges, Sergio Castellanos of the Democratic Unification party said:
“We don’t know when we leave after the vote if there will be prosecutors waiting to detain us. Here you have to be ready for anything.”
The situation in Honduras deteriorated after the 2009 coup that saw the Honduran Army on orders from the Supreme Court, oust President Manuel Zelaya and send him into exile. After the coup, and even after the inauguration of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa in 2010 (an election that saw allegations of voter intimidation) Human Rights Watch noted that security services in Honduras were engaged in attacks on dissenters especially journalists opposed to the coup. Six months after Lobo became President, Human Rights Watch noted:
“… at least eight journalists and ten members of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP)—a political group that opposed the 2009 removal from office of the then president and advocated the reinstatement of the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya — have been killed since President Lobo assumed power on January 27, 2010.”
- The violence isn’t contained to the journalism profession either. Several reports – most notably by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – indicate that the children of those on the anti-coup side of the political fence were kidnapped as an incentive to silence dissent. Of the obscenely high levels of violent crime in the country, only 20% are investigated. Those abuses committed by security forces tend to go almost entirely ignored, including the murder of 15 year old Ebed Yánez, shot dead at an army checkpoint in Tegucigalpa.
The new Honduran President – Juan Orlando Hernandez – seems to be expecting the US to take the lead role, and has made little effort to end the gang violence, political corruption and soaring crime rate, whilst the US Congress tries to find cheaper and easier ways to deport. We should expect no more from Hernandez, who himself was a key player in the 2009 coup that led to a terror that would have impressed Robespierre. He was the coup-candidate. Hernandez was elected promising to increase the power of the already corrupt security services, and through an election that many reported intimidation, threats, and the deaths of at least 18 activists from the opposing LIBRE Party. He was President of the National Party-controlled Congress, and worked to consolidate power for that particular Party, by reshaping the Justice Department as a National Party friendly department.
The violent situation in Honduras, the political fight between the military, courts, and the Presidency, and the suppression of dissent, is exacerbated by short-sighted free trade agreements (most notably with Canada) and the fact that in 2010, 60% of the population was living in poverty, and 40% in extreme poverty. Further, the Garifuna people – a people living on the Caribbean coast for over 200 years – seeking to protect their land from a relentless campaign for agricultural and tourism land by big business in Honduras, live in fear of displacement, through – among other things – a reclassification of their status from ‘Garifuna’ to ‘Afro-Honduran and Afro-descendants’ for the sake of reducing their claims to land. This, despite UNESCO among others recognising the language, art, music, and culture of the Garifuna as:
“… a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize”.
- As tends to be the case, the human rights of actual human beings, often conflicts with the desires of big business. In 2011, Canadian businessman Roy Jorgensen used intimidating tactics to cheaply buy up the land in and around Barrio Cristales, Río Negro, and Trujillo in order to build a Panamax cruise ship pier and centre. Miriam Miranda, General Coordinator of OFRANEH, an indigenous Garifuna federation said:
“The last people who refused to sell [their land] were told ‘if you don’t sell, we’ll take your land away.’”
- The Garifuna are a target for big tourism. In 2013 Juan Peres and Williams Alvarado, members of the Peasant Movement for the Recovery of the Aguán – a group committed to protecting co-ops of peasant farmers – were murdered by paramilitary units. Members of similar groups seeking to protect the rights and the land of peasants have been kidnapped, threatened, tortured, or killed, as the land grab is dehumanised with familiar terms like “large scale land acquisitions”. Honduran newspaper La Tribuna noted:
“In Garifuna communities on the north coast of the country, many children are dropping out of classes because they are leaving the country with their parents or private persons, en route to the United States.”
- Political instability, big business threatening livelihoods, and gangs operating ruthlessly in the area combines to create the atmosphere in which fleeing for a better life is the only option for many.
Drugs cartels and other criminal gangs have control of much of the poorer areas of Honduras. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops conducted research in Honduras and noted:
“The report cites accounts of gang members infiltrating schools and forcing children to either join their ranks or risk violent retribution to them or their families. Even in prisons, incarcerated gang members are able to order violence against members of the community”.
“…law enforcement collaborated with the gangs.”
- The report goes on to note that 58% of children fleeing to the US border had been violently abused by adults before arriving at the border. There are several gangs each fighting for supremacy, in a country lacking strong political institutions, and corrupt security services. The violence that accompanies drug gangs works to push families and young people out of the area, many having to flee for their lives, or live in fear, which works to the advantage of the drug gangs, because those same people are expected to be deported back to that country, and so the cycle perpetuates.
After making the devastating decision to flee, with all the psychological trauma that accompanies such a decision, those children then tend to come up against people smugglers – the very same groups controlling the drugs trade in the country they just fled – who charge them a fortune for safe passage, or turn them into drug smugglers themselves. President Hernandez noted in his interview with CNN, that many of the young girls fleeing are caught and given birth control pills by human smugglers, to be sexually abused. Ted Carpenter for CNN reported:
“Since the cartels have seized control of human smuggling routes through Mexico, often charging refugees several thousand dollars for passage, the flood of undocumented immigrants significantly supplements the revenue that the drug gangs have long enjoyed from trafficking in illegal drugs. Would-be immigrants who can’t pay are pressed into service to carry drugs into the United States. And the surge of unaccompanied minors helps distract the already strained U.S. Border Patrol, making it easier for the drug lords to avoid having their products intercepted.”
- The lives of these children are hell. They have no choice. If those fleeing happen to make it safely to the US border, it isn’t long before they’re deported back to the very places they’re fleeing, with little to no institutional mechanisms by which they’re protected.
Gangs in Honduras have created an atmosphere – cemented by political corruption and weak institutions, along with a lack of direction in the US – in which it pays to create a humanitarian crises focused on children. Indeed, the gangs tend to target children for recruitment to their ranks. 17 year old Mario told Vox:
“I left because I had problems with the gangs. They hung out by a field that I had to pass to get to school. They said if I didn’t join them, they would kill me. I have many friends who were killed or disappeared because they refused to join the gang. I told the gang I didn’t want to. Their life is only death and jail, and I didn’t want that for myself. I want a future.”
- In May 2013, Honduras announced it was investigating the deaths of seven children murdered for refusing to join a gang. The children of central America are pawns in a gang land fight for supremacy in Central America, the failure of the war on drugs, and incompetent political wrangling in Washington.
All of the above factors in Honduras; the 2009 coup, political corruption, a power struggle between the courts and Presidency, institutional state weakness, the suppression of dissent and expression, displacement of communities for the sake of big business, the power of the drug cartels in Honduras, and the failure of the war on drugs throughout the region, have contributed to the huge numbers of children making the life threatening journey to the US border, in the desperate hope for a better life.
They are scared, they are vulnerable, and they’re being protected and shielded by no one. The child predators in their home countries, and on the journey to the US border are winning and actually profiting from a lack of coherent policy in North America, whilst the Congress of the United States enjoys a five week holiday after achieving nothing, and the authorities in Honduras remain too weak to deal with the hideous power of child abusing gangs, corruption in the security services, and big business. The children are the responsibility of the entire international community, not just the US – trying to fix the problem through reviewing work permit arrangements is a small band aid – or the countries in which they were born. The situation is a massive humanitarian crisis that envelopes the whole of the North American continent, lacks institutional mechanisms to protect those children, and will require all of those nations to work together, rather than passing the buck and treating children like pawns.