By Dr Mihir Kanade
The tragic image of the lifeless bodies of 23 year old El Salvadorian Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23 months old daughter, Angie Valeria, found floating in Rio Grande that divides Mexico and the US, shook the collective conscience of people the world over. Ramírez had crossed over with his daughter from the Mexican side, braving the extremely strong currents in the river, and was returning to fetch his wife, Tania, when the toddler jumped back into the water to follow her father. Unable to save either of them, his body was washed ashore along with the little girl’s body tucked inside his T-shirt and her arms draped around his neck. The heartbreaking end to their story of attempting to escape abject poverty and gang violence in El Salvador in search of better opportunities in the US is, unfortunately, not extraordinary.
The gut-wrenching image, however, did stir up the political discourse in the US. The Trump administration insists on building a wall across the Mexican border and imposing stricter conditions on immigration, branding every migrant entering the US without pre-approval as illegal. The US President Donald Trump took no time in blaming the Democrats for opposing his wall and, according to him, thus creating a situation where migrants were forced to take dangerous routes leading to loss of lives. The Democrats, on the other hand, blame Trump’s strict border control measures and efforts to reduce legal immigration to the US as the reason why many have to resort to life-threatening means to enter the US.
The fact, however, is that the cycle of migration from Central America (and elsewhere) to the US through Mexico is much more complex than what this political discourse suggests. Migratory flows from Central American countries to the US are ‘mixed’. They include significant number of asylum-seekers and refugees fleeing well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries, either at the hands of government agents or criminal gangs. But they also include people being trafficked, many of whom, unfortunately, are unaccompanied children, who are then forced into modern day slavery, forced labour, and prostitution.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that same migratory routes are used also by those escaping punishment for crimes committed in home countries or those desperately trying to escape poverty and lack of opportunities for survival for their families.
Increasingly, these mixed migratory flows are facilitated by smugglers, many of whom are organized transnationally, and who thrive monetarily by leeching on the desperation of such migrants. Drug cartels and ‘coyotes’ in Mexico primarily acts as smugglers, in what some analysis suspect, has become a billion dollar illegal industry.
The problem is that different categories of persons within these mixed migratory flows deserve a different protection response. Insisting on legal entry into the US and creating walls for prohibiting entry to asylum-seekers and refugees who are fleeing persecution is not only contrary to international law but is also plainly inhumane. Those fleeing torture and threats to their lives in the home countries do not, on most occasions, have the time or resources to seek visas to enter the US.
They may be forced to flee with their families without having the opportunity to even collect identity documents such as passports or birth certificates. On the other hand, unlike asylum-seekers, those who are trafficked may wish to go back home. The problem today is that in efforts to prevent the menace of smuggling, US policies are on the whole designed to be neutral, and therefore blind, to the different categories of migrants. The blanket policy response of insisting on legal entry for all migrants, irrespective of their status, not only ignores the circumstances in which asylum-seekers and refugees make the dangerous journey with their families and children, but also basic human rights obligations, including the international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits States from either deporting persons back to places where they might be persecuted or preventing people from escaping persecution and finding safe havens. ·
(The author is Academic Director, University for Peace (UPEACE), Costa Rica. Views expressed are personal.)