Desperate Central Americans Are Fleeing to Other Countries Besides the US: Forced Displacement Statistics

One of the recurrent arguments I’ve seen in the debate over the Trump administration’s inhumane child separation policy is that Central Americans are primarily motivated by economic opportunism. The argument goes that people are trying to take advantage of a “loophole” and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be more lenient if adults arrived at the border with children in tow. Attorney General Jeff Sessions even claimed that the influx of asylum seekers was due to the previous administration giving people immunity from prosecution if they were accompanied by a minor:

“Word got out about this loophole, with predictable results. The number of aliens (edit: ‘people’) illegally crossing with children between our ports of entry went from 14,000 to 75,000 — that’s a five-fold increase — in just the last four years.” 

A gaping hole with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the United States is not the only country that has seen an increase in asylum seekers from Central America. Instead, the pattern seems to be motivated primarily from “push” factors such as rising levels of violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras than by “pull” factors in the United States such as easier border crossings.

If Sessions’ claim were true, then we would expect that the increase in refugees and asylum seekers would only be seen in the U.S. But that is not what we’re seeing. For example, the number of asylum applications in Mexico increased dramatically from 2,000 in 2014 to more than 14,000 last year, primarily from Honduras. In the case of Honduras, homicide rates nearly doubled a few years after the President was removed in a coup in 2009. That led to a series of counter-protests, followed by “a wave of political violence that targeted a range of activists, including journalists and human rights defenders.” On top of that, instability allowed gangs and drug cartels to flourish, and a broken legal system has allowed men to kill women at some of the highest rates of femicide in the world, without fear of incarceration.   

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The Scars of Cruelty: Biological Effects of Parent-Child Separation

“Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins. To fight cruelty, in any shape or form – whether it be towards other human beings or non-human beings – brings us into direct conflict with that unfortunate streak of inhumanity that lurks in all of us.” – Jane Goodall (2010: 306)

An infant cries as U.S. Border Patrol agents process a group of immigrants in Granjeno, Texas, June 2014. (Photo: Jerry Lara, Staff / San Antonio Express-News).

 

Earlier this month Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a public speech in Scottsdale, Arizona where he announced that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security would separate all children from adults who crossed the U.S. border, regardless of whether they did so illegally or were claiming asylum. Sessions framed this somewhat ambiguously by referring to the “smuggling” of children. Yet it was also clear that he meant for this to be a deterrent to parents, as they would have their own children taken from them:

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

Several advocacy groups immediately denounced the policy as cruel and inhumane, including Amnesty International, the ACLU, and the Women’s Refugee Commission. The group Kids in Need of Defense stated that in addition to being cruel, the policy would make it more difficult to process cases for families who are seeking asylum from violence, since it is harder to get information from parents and children who are kept in separate places.

 

The Situation in Central America

The need to process asylum cases efficiently is especially relevant today. Last year saw 294,000 people from Central America (primarily El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) claim asylum or refugee status in other countries as they fled from rising levels of violence. According to UNHCR , that number was sixteen times higher than it was in 2011. In addition, roughly 714,500 people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador remained internally displaced in June 2017. That is, they were forced from their homes but had not crossed an international border. Data from the Igarapé Institute in Brazil show that homicide rates in Central America are among the highest in the world , with levels of violence that rival war-torn countries.

Furthermore, the number of Central Americans seeking asylum had also increased in Belize, Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica, showing that while some cases may be economic migrants looking for work in the U.S., many are simply desperate people fleeing organized gang violence, human trafficking, extortion, and corrupt police/ judicial systems. And some may choose to leave based on a combination of factors. Regardless of the cause, it cannot be an easy decision to make, particularly for parents.

UNHCR’s Francesca Fontanini said that short-term solutions, (which would include things like deportations and parent-child separation) were not likely to ameliorate the situation. In fact, they could even make things worse. According to Robert Muggah, one factor exacerbating the situation in Central America is the sheer scale of deportations from the U.S., in particular people with criminal records:

“Between 2013 and 2015, the US government authorised the deportation of more than 300,000 Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans with criminal records, many of them children of refugees from the 1970s and 1980s. Another 550,000 Mexicans were also deported over the same period.

The return of so many people, many of them convicted felons, coincided with a sharp uptick in criminal violence in Central America and Mexico. The policy of deporting Latin Americans was actually expanded during the Obama administration. For years the returnees have strained local criminal justice and penal systems to breaking point – overcrowded prisons are even referred to as “crime colleges” or “finishing schools for crime.”

Fontanini added that “we need the states who are receiving these people to invest in longer-term solutions.” What that would entail, she did not say. But it is clear that instability perpetuates itself, and that this does not stay neatly contained within national borders. It is also clear that innocent Central Americans are being crushed between organized crime in their home countries and a sense of indifference or hostility from neighboring nations. President Trump even went so far as to say about “unaccompanied alien minors” (i.e., children), “they look so innocent. They’re not innocent.” The implication was that organized criminals, including members of the notorious gang MS-13, were infiltrating across the border with some pretending to be asylum seekers.

The statistics show that this does occur, though rates appear to be low. According to The New York Times, 240,000 unaccompanied minors entered the US between 2012 and 2017. Only fifty-six of those were linked to MS-13. There is a moral imperative to avoid painting innocent people as the very perpetrators of violence from whom they are fleeing (the same could be said about refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries, who are often conflated with terrorists). Furthermore, Trump’s claim was contradicted by his Chief of Staff, John Kelly, who indicated that the primary reason for preventing immigration from Central America was more about assimilation than crime.

“Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. … But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. … They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. … The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

 

“Cruelty is the Point”  

When John Kelly was asked about whether he thought it was cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children, he replied , “I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Kelly is an alumnus of UMass Boston, where I have taught since 2003. I think he is an intelligent person, but this seems to be feigned ignorance. All he would have to do is take a moment to imagine a young child being separated from their parents — perhaps imagining himself as a boy in Brighton, or thinking of his own children being taken away when they were young. I’m sure he would quickly conclude that this would be a difficult experience. Again contradicting each other, President Trump acknowledged this when he tweeted that the policy of separation was “horrible,” though he neglected to mention that he was reportedly dismayed that some subordinates “were resisting his direction that parents be separated from their children.”

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The Dreams of Refugees

Do yourself a favor and watch this 6 minute short film on refugee children. You won’t regret it. 

The Suffering of the Rohingya

Smoke and flames in Myanmar are seen from the Bangladeshi side of the border near Cox’s Bazar, Sept. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Two recent videos caught my eye, one from Al Jazeera, the other via the New York Times. They both pertain to the massive number of Rohingya refugees forcibly displaced from Myanmar into Bangladesh, in what the United Nations is calling “ethnic cleansing.” There are many reports of deliberate targeting of Rohingya Muslims by the largely Buddhist Myanmar military, police, and militias.

 

However, only a few voices have been willing to call this a “genocide,” in part because the charge is so serious and the burden of proof is onerous. According to Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, this reluctance may stem in part from a mental image that a genocide requires “one huge act of frenzied violence,” rather than a steady, slow drip of purging. Another factor may be because of legal obligations required to counteract such atrocities once genocide is declared. For example, the U.S. was hesitant to declare the events in Rwanda and Darfur a genocide partly because a finding of genocide might have required the Clinton and Bush administrations “to actually ‘do something.'”

Images from satellites and on the ground confirm that hundreds of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground in a scorched earth campaign, as a deliberate strategy to deny the Rohingya a home to return to after they are expelled. Refugees have reported that soldiers have killed villagers, gang-raped women, even thrown babies into fires, burning them alive. Despite denials from the Myanmar government, the refugees’ reports seem consistent, corroborating each other. In the video below from the New York Times, the reporter says that “It seems like everyone in the camp has a horror story to tell.

 

Among the survivors, the suffering is not likely to go away any time soon. The distribution of food seems inadequate, overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees. As a form of therapy, children in camps are drawing some of their traumatic experiences in order to cope with them. Several depict soldiers killing civilians and burning houses. 

In a 2009 study of 1,500+ elderly Germans, Philip Kuwert and colleagues found that even after 60 years had passed, people who were forcibly displaced as children during WWII were significantly more likely to suffer from current anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and lower resilience (Kuwert et al 2009). Whether this pattern will recur in the Rohingya is to be seen. There is also a possibility for post-traumatic growth, where individuals can experience positive changes “as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”

But it seems clear that the Rohingya at least face the potential for a multi-generational trauma. If a high-income nation like Germany, with all of its resources, can be still be affected six decades later, then how much higher are the odds for that same effect in the Rohingya now living in Bangladesh, as well as those who stayed behind in Myanmar. This suggests the need for the world to pay more attention to the plight of the Rohingya to prevent more suffering from occurring.

 

Reference

Kuwert P, Brähler E, Glaesmer H, Freyberger HJ, Decker O. (2009) Impact of forced displacement during World War II on the present-day mental health of the elderly: a population-based study. Int Psychogeriatr. 2009 21(4):748-53. Link

A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977

 

 

As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 

From PRIO

By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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U.S. Attitudes Toward Refugees

Generally speaking, U.S. attitudes toward the idea of accepting refugees have not been very generous over time.

From Drew DeSilver at the Pew Research Center:

Pew Poll

And from Jeffrey Jones at Gallup:

Gallup.png

 

Growth of Recently Arrived Refugee Children in the U.S.

A recent paper in the journal PLoS One examined growth patterns of 982 refugee children (age 0-10 yrs) from 35 countries who were resettled in the state of Washington (Dawson-Hahn et al 2016). Using height and weight measured at the time of their overseas health examination, the authors calculated rates of stunting (low height-for-age), wasting (low weight-for-height), and overweight/obesity as markers of a child’s nutritional status. These statistics were also compared to low-income children in Washington.

To me, the most important part of the results was that rates of substandard growth were quite high among refugees. Overall, refugee children aged 0-5 years old were more likely to be wasted and stunted, and less likely to be obese in comparison to low-income children in Washington.

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Figure 1 from Dawson-Hahn et al

 

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