Between a Sword and a Wall
A Portrait of the Migrant Caravan
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
— Warsan Shire
One of the deadliest places on earth is Central America’s Northern Triangle, which includes El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Since the 1980s, 85% of the immigrants whom have arrived at the US southern border, have been from the Northern Triangle. The dangers people are fleeing have been thoroughly documented for years. As the amount of requests for asylum have skyrocketed, fear for ones life, and food insecurity have been found to be the root cause for the mass migration north. People are fleeing violence, personal and direct, and immense poverty and food insecurity, caused not only by politically instability but by climate change.
Credible fear screenings carried out by US asylum officers have found that 82% of women from the Northern Triangle have “a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the UN Convention Against Torture Act”. At least 50% of migrants are asylum-seeking refugees, many of which are unaccompanied minors, fleeing countries that are plagued by government corruption, poverty, gang violence, sexual assault, and murder.
Refugees worldwide are granted protection by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, which states, “A refugee has the right to safe asylum. Refugees should receive at least the same rights and basic help as any other foreigner who is a legal resident, including freedom of thought, of movement, and freedom from torture and degrading treatment.” In addition, they have the right not to be deported back to their country of origin if their safety or lives are in jeopardy, this being especially guaranteed for unaccompanied children who have the largest umbrella of protection granted by the UN council. However, all refugees are protected by law to seek asylum in the United States upon arrival at the border.
After crossing into Mexico from Central America, refugees face a grueling journey of survival along routes which are notorious for human traffickers preying upon migrants, along with robbery, rape and murder, kidnapping is a real and present danger. Most crimes committed against migrants will not be reported in fear of deportation. Once the refugees reach the southern US border, they have few options of which to choose from. They can approach a port of entry and request asylum, but with the new administration’s policy of turning refugees away, in violation of their rights, many chose to hire “coyotes” to smuggle them across the highly guarded border. Along the harrowing journey across a forbidding desert, 80% of women and children will face sexual assault or rape before finding the opportunity to voluntarily turn themselves into US authorities once on American soil, where they can apply for asylum without fear of being turned away.
Once the migrants have surrendered or been apprehended by US border patrol, families are separated, including children from heir parents, and they will be locked up in detention centers, often states apart from one another, with little to no contact, for months at a time while awaiting a court date. While in detention, women and children, especially unaccompanied minors, face further risk of sexual assault, with 97% of rape accusations met with silence. And it has recently come to light that ICE has deemed itself “not-responsible” for background checks on employees whom work at privately owned detention centers that house children. When their day in court before a judge finally arrives, the overwhelming probability will result in their deportation back to their country of origin.
“Immigration policy should be
generous; it should be fair; it should
be flexible. With such a policy we
can turn to the world, and to our own
past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.”
— John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants
Those whom have fled a Northern Triangle nation are exceptionally likely to become targeted once returned. Many will face threats upon their lives, some for bearing witness to crimes, refusing to join a gang, attempting to leave a gang, or failing to pay any extortion fees prior to their initial fleeing of the country, thus deportation often equates a death sentence. Of the nearly one million Northern Triangle migrants apprehended since 2010, at least 800,000 of them being deported, including more than 40,000 children. At least, one hundred deportees have been murdered on their return to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since January 2014, and the numbers are growing rapidly.
Increasing levels of migration have long confirmed that people are fleeing in desperation. Yet, ICE deportations of families and unaccompanied children have increased, in spite of the fact that these individuals have nowhere to turn for protection once they are sent back. Countries of the Northern Triangle provide little to no security for their citizens. Victims rarely find protection from authorities, and in fact, many victims fear the police as much as they do criminals.
The majority of police forces are underfunded, have poor leadership, and are often involved or complacent in criminal activity. Therefore, insufficient law enforcement allows crime to run rampant and criminals to operate with impunity, leaving the majority of homicide cases not investigated nor prosecuted. And due to the scarcity of a law enforcement presence, narcotics-trafficking runs rampant. A lack of trust for law enforcement is also due to the many highway assaults and carjackings which take place at checkpoints set up roadside by criminals disguised in police uniforms, with police cars and equipment.
There is a common phrase in Guatemala, “In Guatemala, life means nothing”. That is because the annual murder rate is 35 for every 100,000 people, that equals 100 murders per week, in a country of 15 million, roughly the size of Tennessee. Have an enemy? In Guatemala, an assassin can easily be hired for $20US. Also, Guatemala is controlled by Mexican drug cartels, namely the Zetas, and a complex mix of paramilitaries, vigilantes, violent street gangs, and an Iron fist government formerly responsible for the death or disappearance of over 200,000 citizens. Unsurprisingly, in Guatemala, 98 percent of crimes are not prosecuted.
The desperate financial reality of extreme poverty in Guatemala drives many to a life of crime, from robbing buses to kidnapping and extortion. Hundreds upon hundreds of regular citizens are kidnapped each year. And street gangs often force children by threat of violence to join their ranks, with refusal equating a death sentence. Mother’s routinely watch their children die in the streets on a daily basis. The whole system forces one to choose between being predator or prey, either join or flee. And for many women and children facing constant threats of violence, stacked atop extreme poverty, malnutrition, and a complete lack of basic needs, such as roads, electricity, schools, and a reliable government, leaves them with only one tangible option, and that is to flee.
Migration is a basic human instinct driven by the will to survive, and the will to protect your loved ones. Once one does flee, they officially become refugees, and their human rights instantaneously become protected by an array international UN treaties, with the right to seek asylum, and the right not to be sent back to their native nation if their lives are deemed in danger, being paramount. Yet, in direct noncompliance with the UN Refugee Agency, the US government under the Trump administration has continued to annually deport over 100,000 Guatemalan refugees, willfully and consciously back into a lethal environment.
Of the three Northern Triangle nations, it must be stated that Honduras holds the title of being the worlds most deadly, with the highest homicide rate on earth, averaging 60-70 murders for every 100,000 people per year. Since it has been a Republic, Honduras has consistently endured violence and instability, as well as remaining one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. More than half of the population lives in poverty, with per capita income being one of the lowest in Latin America.
Honduras was designated a “Food Priority Country” by the UN, with one-fourth of children affected by chronic malnutrition. With food insecurity being the highest amongst rural and indigenous people, farmers live in extreme poverty. After an ongoing drought, directly caused by climate change, all three nations have lost 82% of their crops, 280,000 hectors of beans and maize, which not only has left the farmers with nothing to sell in the market, nor eat themselves, but has left at least two million people in a state of food insecurity. Since much of the Honduran economy is based on small-scale agriculture, natural disasters such as this drought, but also hurricanes and floods have a particularly devastating impact, making Honduras extremely vulnerable to climate change.
“I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”
— George Washington
“What has happened to us in this country? If we study our own history, we find that we have always been ready to receive the unfortunate from other countries, and though this may seem a generous gesture on our part, we have profited a thousand fold by what they have brought us.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt
In addition to the extreme poverty, those who flee Honduras, are fleeing violence, particularly women fleeing gender-based violence which rampantly occurs in public and in private. Even more broad than economic inequality is the inequality between woman and man. The most common form of gender-based violence is sexual in nature. The Public Prosecutor's office has recognized twenty-five forms of violence inflicted upon Honduran women, with gender-based killing, or femicide, being the worst.
Honduras rates sixth in the world for femicide, with rates steadily increasing. In this nation, femicide is extremely brutal, with bodies often found burned or with the feet and hands bound. The Honduran rate of femicide is greater than the total amount of homicide rates in countries that are currently engaged in war. Yet, sadly, in Honduras, fewer than 3% of reported femicide cases are prosecuted by the courts, giving more confidence to those who commit these crimes, knowing that they will not be convicted. Thus, femicide has become the norm in Honduras.
El Salvador may be the most dangerous nation in the world for women. In 2016 alone, 524 women were killed, yet only the bodies that were taken to morgues were accounted for, not included were those found dismembered. In El Salvador, criminal gangs, known as “Maras,” are in nearly every Salvadoran city and are greatly responsible for these horrific crimes. And regardless of government crackdowns against the Maras, the murder rate among women has remained steady. It is said that the reason women are a problem to Salvadorian society is that 10 women survive such attacks each day on average, which leads to a retaliation by the gangs against the survivor’s family. It is not rare for the survivor’s entire family to be killed. Thus, the blame naturally falls upon the women.
To make matters worse, survivors of sexual assault are often transmitted HIV, further ostracizing them from their communities. And unfortunately, as large of a role gangs play in this horrific scenario, they are not solely responsible for the violence against women. Husbands, fathers, uncles, and neighbors are also to blame, with nearly three out of every four rapes having taken place in the victims’ home, with 7 out of every 10 victims being minors. And if that women or child is impregnated by their rapist, with abortion being illegal, they are expected to have the child. The punishment for abortion is a 30-year sentence, the same as for murder, and doctors often report women who attempt to have one.
El Salvador is a nation of just over 6 million people, roughly the size of Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful country known for its paradise beaches and surf spots, mountainous landscapes, winding roads that pass rolling coffee plantations, rainforests with waterfalls, and quaint towns with wonderful cuisine. The capital, San Salvador, has a dramatic backdrop of volcanoes and is rich with culture. But lying just beyond such beauty and rich culture is a backdrop of darkness.
The country has never been a stranger to extreme violence, and struggled through a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, with a death toll of 75,000 people, and countless more missing. The Salvadorian government, with the support of then U.S. president Ronald Reagan, waged an all-out war against its own people, with 85% of all civilian deaths committed by Salvadoran armed forces and government hired death squads, all funded by the U.S. government. The country was devastated when the Salvadorian government implemented a "scorched earth” policy adopted from U.S. methods used during the Vietnam era.
After the civil war ended, the UN spent decades investigating the mass amount of crimes committed against humanity, ultimately holding those accountable before international court, all but the US. However, in more recent times, the UN’s challenge has been to assist the endangered women of El Salvador, a nation that has normalized gendered violence. And in a sense, the civil war never ended for women, especially those who are too “young and pretty” as they say. Their society is killing them off, and their government appears inept, complacent and merciless, in other words, a large part of the problem.
The will to survival, more and more points in only one direction, north. To flee north for your lives. To become a refugee and to place your safety in the hands of the UN Refugee council. The foundation of International Human Rights Law states “Whatever our nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status, the international community on December 10, 1948, made a commitment to upholding dignity and justice for all of us. And the United States is obligated by treaty to uphold such law.
Yet the US, under the Trump administration has refused to recognize the full umbrella of human rights afforded to refugees, in particularly, Central Americans, which includes these El Salvadorian women whom are arriving at the border seeking Asylum. Salvadorian statistics do not lie when it comes to illustrating the harsh reality of the continued civil war against its own mothers, sisters, and daughters. The numbers don’t lie. There is zero breathing room when it comes to justifying refusal of asylum and deportation to what just may be the world’s most dangerous nation for women.
It is a documented fact that crime organizations of the Northern Triangle are preying and strengthening themselves upon the lives of those whom are deported, clearly suggesting that deportation itself is greatly contributing to the very problem of mass migration, creating a deadly cycle. The root cause of this exodus has been clearly identified, and it is plain to see, this "root" has been richly fertilized with the innocent lives of those deported by the United States of America in direct violation of the UN Convention Against Torture Act.
“I do not know where to turn, where to search for refuge. In a simple truth…I am between a sword and a wall.”