Tens of thousands have been fleeing Central America for years and trying to reach the US – despite the more than restrictive migration policy under the Trump administration. Every few months they come together to large refugee camps, which receive media attention. Mostly they walk through Mexico in the direction of the USA.
The migrant “Vinicio” and his family, of which the “Intercept” reports, did not even get that far. Shortly before the Mexican border in Guatemala, Guatemalan soldiers put her on a bus back to the border of Honduras. “We will hide until we can go back,” he says. Returning home is not an option. Like him, there are thousands.
Reaching the US border is becoming increasingly difficult
Like most migrants, Vinicio flees from the bad economic situation, corruption and gang violence. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where most of the migrants come from, are among the most dangerous countries in the world. Those who have come into the focus of the gangs hardly have a chance to escape them. The Maras control entire neighborhoods, extort protection money and forcibly recruit children.
In the USA, cutting hedges, wiping floors and working on construction sites, on the other hand, seems comparatively paradisiacal. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get there in order to possibly obtain a positive asylum decision or, after many years in illegality, to obtain a tolerance.
The borders of the United States are now practically in the neighboring countries. The police and military are specifically used to intercept migrants already in transit. A scenario that seems vaguely familiar in Europe.
A decade of work on shifting borders
From the perspective of Mexico in particular, this is partly understandable. No state wants refugee camps on its borders, as they have grown in Mexico through Trump’s immigration policy. Tens of thousands have been waiting on the Mexican side of the border for months for the decision of the US authorities. A policy that is about to change.
Even those who arrived with modest means are now destitute. The result is, among other things, an increase in crime despite the great helpfulness of the local population.
Caught in the " vertical boundary"
A good part of the development is due to the United States, which has been pressuring Central American countries for many years to stop migrants and potential asylum seekers as far as possible from the American border. The concept of the “vertical border”, originally intended only for Mexico, has now extended to all of Central America.
“The Guatemalan border with Chiapas (in Mexico) is now our southern border, “said Alan Bersin of U.S. Homeland Security back in 2012.” The policy is responding to the anti-immigration policy coming from the North, “Julia González, director of the National Round Table on Migration in Guatemala, a non-governmental initiative, confirmed to the Intercept.
Mexico and Guatemala as border posts
Again and again refugees join together to form large refugee routes. Especially because it is safer. Tens of thousands of migrants disappear every year in Mexico alone. Traveling alone, they are easy prey for thieves, traffickers, drug dealers and pimps. In the group, they also hope for protection from corrupt police officers.
Covid-19 did not improve the situation. More and more people are fleeing who were able to get through with casual jobs before the pandemic. Nationals from Honduras, El Savador and Nicaragua are legally allowed to cross the Guatemalan border without a passport.
Since the pandemic, however, the country has demanded a corona test upon entry, arguing that the virus is spreading rapidly, especially in refugee caravans. The situation is getting worse. In January, thousands were stopped by the military in Guatemala by force.
The border is now everywhere
Because the border line for fleeing has shifted to the south, it fills the space between the actual US borders and the barrier further south. Large parts of the Central American states thus effectively become a border area.
“The problem is not so much that the border line of the United States has been moved south, but that the border has expanded so that it fills every gap,” says González. What happens all over the world happens when established escape routes become inaccessible: migrants turn to more remote, more risky paths. “We fear that the number of people who disappear on the journey will increase.”
The situation also destabilizes the transit countries
The pushbacks not only contradict human rights, they also destabilize the situation in the affected countries. The Guatemalan military operates far outside its mandate, says Iduvina Hernández, head of a Guatemalan NGO that deals with security in democracy. Hernández sees the softening of borders as a “complete violation of the laws of the country, the Constitution and international Law”.
It is unlikely that conditions will change significantly soon. The United States is very likely to continue its course against “crime, drug trafficking and corruption” in Central American countries – conditions in which the United States has played a significant part. At most, development aid could be expanded.