Central American Refugees: Consequences of Political Narratives

In recent decades, Mexico and the Central American region have seen enormous patterns of migration. Since 2014, an estimated 2 million people have migrated from the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras alone. In response to these large numbers, the migrant-receiving countries to the north have aimed to label the vast majority of those on the move as ‘economic’ or ‘voluntary’ migrants. Given this narrative, the United States especially has worked to externalize immigration controls to its southern neighbours, drafting border security arrangements with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico all within the last 3 years. Following these arrangements, we have seen Central American security forces breaking up groups of migrants with force, and Mexican authorities detaining migrants looking to make their way further north.

The Trump Administration utilized explicitly racist, xenophobic rhetoric in order to push this narrative, but even under the Biden Administration, immigration officials cite national sovereignty and the rule of law when they speak about stemming migration from the region and halting groups of migrants in their journey northward. These political narratives, however, undermine and ignore the legitimate claims to asylum and refugee protections to which many of these migrants are entitled. In fact, an examination of the major causes of movement in Mexico and Central America calls the binary narrative of migration itself into question.

In 2021, UNHCR estimated that there were nearly 600,000 asylum-seekers and refugees from the Northern Triangle. The diverse and interconnected causes of this movement include widespread gender-based violence, pervasive gang activity, political repression, and government failure to provide protection to citizens in the region. Murder rates in the region are some of the highest in the world in large part due to gang activity and the drug trade. Those fleeing gang violence, retaliation, and recruitment make up a large portion of refugees and asylum seekers, but high rates of murder and assault are not solely the result of gang activity.

Source: International Crisis Group

Violence against women and domestic abuse are acutely intense problems in the region despite efforts of local governments to stringently criminalise and police gender-based violence. The threat of sexual assault, intimate partner femicide, and domestic abuse form the basis for thousands of asylum applications annually. Much of this brutality is often attributed to fragile institutions, ambivalent law enforcement, and histories of war, trauma, and violence in the region. While this is not a comprehensive list of the harm and persecution that asylum seekers face in the region, it is inclusive of many of the major bases upon which successful asylum claims are made.

Despite the high numbers of asylum seekers and refugees with legitimate claims to protection under international refugee law, however, many are still denied and stigmatised due to restrictive interpretations of the 1951 Refugee Convention, violent border policies, and political narratives that maintain that all migrants are migrants of opportunity. But when considering those ‘voluntary’ migrants, it is worthwhile to examine the underlying causes of their migration.

As we view patterns of economic migration, we must consider that the aforementioned violence, gang activity, and government corruption inhibit economic opportunities and drive people to flee their homes as a result. The ever-increasing severity of climate change has also led to extreme weather patterns in the area that have contributed to economic crises in the agriculture sector, particularly in coffee production. As legal practice and scholarship continue to incorporate climate refugees into the international law paradigm, narratives surrounding these refugee groups must change.

Source: National Catholic Reporter

While these individuals aren’t fleeing direct ‘persecution’ as it is understood in the Refugee Convention, their movements are still driven and informed by those foundational pillars of violence and harm.  The preferred narrative of migrant-receiving countries is that there is a clear binary delineation between ‘legitimate’ asylum seekers, and the rest of those migrating for economic and social reasons. Not only is this distinction more nebulous than immigration officials and political actors would have us believe, but the very existence of these two categories allows officials to further reduce the permissible grounds by which asylum seekers are found to be deserving of protection.

The large number of those fleeing generalized violence and economic hardship in Central American countries has been explicitly used by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in the United States to deny asylum applicants due to concerns of excessive permissibility ‘opening the floodgates’ to many more such applicants. The pervasive violence and lack of government accountability in the region have also been cited as evidence that certain asylum applicants lack specificity or particularity in their applications for protection despite very real threats to their safety.

Such interpretations and narratives lead directly to restrictive and violent border policies and severe consequences to those with a legitimate claim to protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which itself does not go far enough in protecting vast numbers of migrants and displaced people in the region and worldwide. Painting the majority of these migrants as not deserving of asylum protections, both in legal practice and political discourse, has allowed the governments of receiving states—especially the United States—to write off entire migration movements as illegal, ravenous, and dangerous. The Trump administration consistently used just such narrative tactics as a political weapon against his opponents who often either failed to challenge such rhetoric or outright parroted it. Since the Biden administration has taken over, little has changed with respect to the legal realities or the portrayal of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers face violence every step of the way as they make the dangerous journey from their initial precarious situation to safety. These political narratives that originate in migrant-receiving countries exacerbate and deepen this violence through restrictions on the movement of people. All of this originates from a false dichotomy of legitimate vs illegitimate migration which aims to erase refugees and subvert international obligations and moral responsibility. Without a fundamental change to the way refugees and asylum seekers are portrayed in the Americas, these political and legal realities cannot substantively change and those fleeing violence, exploitation, and environmental deterioration will continue to be re-victimised and deprived of the protections which they are owed.