The invisible walls of the Americas
“You leave your country to move forward. To stay is to lie down and die,” Khristopher told an Amnesty International delegation in Bogotá when we interviewed him to find out about his experience as a Venezuelan living in Colombia.
Khristopher is only one of the 4.8 million people that have been forced to flee a country facing a humanitarian emergency so serious that the departure of its citizens now constitutes the second largest refugee crisis in the world after Syria.
The annual report published by Amnesty International today on the state of human rights in the Americas in 2019 invites us to think about an entire continent on the move. Despite the fact that there is no active armed conflict in this hemisphere full of stunning natural landscapes and a vibrant and engaging culture, there are several crises of migrants and refugees crossing borders. In each of these crises there are stories of children and entire families desperately trying to rebuild their lives in a safe place.
Other than Venezuela, the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador remain too violent and too poverty-stricken for their citizens to live dignified lives. This forces them to undertake journeys full of dangers and hardships through Mexico, either with the aim of staying there or attempting to live the famous ‘American dream’ in the United States.
When Donald Trump announced in 2015 that he would build a wall along the border with Mexico, many of us thought that this would neither be technically nor physically possible. The complex terrain of more than 3,000 kilometres poses too many difficulties for a project of this magnitude. Few could foresee that, once in place in the White House, Trump and his administration would build a different type of wall.
This ‘invisible wall’ has been built using laws, practices and public policies that, piece by piece, have broken down a key foundation of international law: the right of all people to seek and obtain refuge if their lives or physical safety are at risk in their country of origin.
Under the policy commonly known as ‘Remain in Mexico’, since January 2019, US authorities have sent more than 60,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico – typically in border states where there are high levels of violence – while their requests are processed. This is one example of the existence of a wall without bricks and cement that affects and harms the dignity of thousands of people fleeing from realities that are difficult to imagine: your children could be recruited by a violent gang in a city in Honduras or your daughter could be sexually abused by a criminal group controlling a poor community in El Salvador with total impunity.
Not only has Mexico accepted the ‘Remain in Mexico’ programme, but it has also sent the National Guard, a primarily military force, to border areas to carry out migration management tasks that should not fall within its remit. To complicate the situation even further, the Trump administration has entered into agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to turn them into ‘safe third countries’ willing to accommodate asylum seekers sent from the US because they previously passed through those countries. When we consider the lack of capacity that these countries have to receive and protect asylum seekers, it is not difficult to conclude that the ‘American dream’ has little-by-little turned into the Mesoamerican nightmare.
In Nicaragua, the human rights crisis that began in April 2018 with the repressive onslaught of the government of Daniel Ortega against citizens who oppose its policies – a crisis that is still ongoing – has caused more than 80,000 Nicaraguans to be forcibly displaced to other countries, mainly to Costa Rica.
Even though in the majority of cases people have been able to cross borders, they unfortunately continue to face great difficulties integrating into society in host countries, particularly in terms of employment. This is due to obstacles to accessing efficient regularization processes for their migration statuses that leads to the majority being exposed to a state of vulnerability that does not allow them, in any way, to build a new life following the forced migration that they have been subjected to.
The case of Venezuela is another example of how the policies and systems of international protection in host countries have become an invisible wall, restricting rights and affecting the lives of thousands of people. At the beginning of the crisis, many South American countries accepted those fleeing the mass violations of human rights in Venezuela. However, as the amount of people has increased, countries such as Peru, Chile and Ecuador began to impose requirements that effectively obstruct or deny the entry and residence of Venezuelans in their countries, even reaching the stage of expulsion and return, which is in violation of international law.
Faced with this complex reality, we must think of strategies to promote and protect the human rights of refugees and migrants that take into account that host communities already face many problems of their own in terms of public services and inequality.
It is vital that the international community view and understand the continent of America in humanitarian terms, particularly in relation to the people who, day after day, leave their home communities to embark on what many now call a ‘migration of desperation’ and encounter countries that sadly have begun to build invisible walls through practices and policies that are harmful to their rights.
Forced mobility will most likely continue to be a reality throughout the Americas in 2020. The region would certainly benefit from receiving those seeking to contribute to host countries without fear.
As Reinaldo, a Venezuelan living in Argentina, told us when we interviewed him for the launch of our campaign #WelcomeVenezuela, “Behind the fear there is an opportunity to grow, to take back your dreams, your life, and to achieve great things.”
We all want a better world and a life in which we can fulfil our aspirations, however small they may be. Migrants and refugees in the Americas are no different. Enough walls already.