Thanks to the work of anti-immigration activists, it has quickly become a matter of faith in the conservative media that the huge influx of children and families from Central America coming to the southern border is a direct response to President Obama’s 2012 executive order that halted deportations of some undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children — or even the intentional result of a conspiracy to recruit Democratic voters.
But a National Journal interview with a UN refugee official this week paints a much more complex picture. Leslie Velez, senior protection officer of the UN Commission for Refugees, tells National Journal that the UN started noticing an increase in people fleeing violence in Central America as early as 2005, that it started accelerating in 2008, and that the number of Central American asylum seekers has “been doubling every year since 2011.”
Velez notes that Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Belize have been seeing similar influxes of immigrants fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and that only a tiny number of the children her staff talked to in their research mentioned the United States’ immigration policies as a reason for arriving here.immig
She adds that this is “not a migration story” but “a humanitarian crisis and a foreign policy issue.”
When did it become apparent that something out of the ordinary was happening with migration out of Central America?
Our sister agency, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, started the clock at the increase in violence and insecurity in the Northern Triangle in 2006.
Around 2008, it was probably the first time it really hit the U.N. refugee agency’s radar. When we went back to the numbers, there was an increase in asylum applications starting as early as 2005. It wasn’t too significant until we got to 2008. And in 2008 to 2013 we noted a 712 percent increase that were lodged in countries other than the United States [like Mexico, Panama, Belize, and Costa Rica].
So why are we hearing about this now?
The numbers have been doubling every year since 2011. And for us, that’s dramatic. For the U.S. government—who has been really challenged in order to process this large number—I think their capacity has really been tested in the last few weeks. I think that’s what generated a lot of attention. Because the numbers have rapidly increased.
And your next followup question is probably going to be, “Why?”
Yes it is. Why?
From reports that we are hearing from individuals on the ground, both from our U.N. offices that are there, as well as NGOs—in particular Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador—they have been really clear that on the ground a few important things are happening.
One is that the criminal armed actors, specifically gangs, are really operating with significant impunity and targeting children at a younger and younger age. Recently there was a very public massacre and dismemberment of children as young as seven who had refused to join the gang. So it was a message to show who is in power, who is in control.
I’ve been reading that these children are coming north on rumors that the United States will let them in, that the Obama administration has lax policies toward minors. Did you find that at all in your survey?
We interviewed 404 children asking extremely open-ended questions as to the reasons and the nature of having left and what they were expecting when they arrived. Out of the 404, only 9 of them mentioned any kind of possibility of the U.S. treating children well. Two said “immigration reform”; one said “I hear they treat kids well.” It’s very general and from the perspective of a child. But only nine out of 404 said anything about that.
So what is attracting them to the United States?
First, I have to point out to you, it’s not just the United States. That was a another red flag for us. There is an increasing trend to seek asylum in Mexico, which is much safer for them than where they are from. The number of asylum seekers in Nicaragua, in Belize, in Costa Rica, in Panama—all of that has grown 712 percent since 2008.
This is not the normal flow. For the U.N. refugee agency to register an uptick in asylum applications in places other than the United States is a huge red flag for us. People are leaving to places where they can find safety.
So what are the countries experiencing the influx?
The U.S, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Belize.
Is the U.S. handling this well?
The U.S. is doing everything that I think it possibly can in this short-term context. We have really applauded that President Obama has recognized there is a humanitarian crisis, and that he engaged FEMA and has asked the Secretary of Homeland Security to respond. The machinery is in place, it’s starting to move. The domestic response, in the short term, is doing the best that it can to get people out of the bottle necking facilities that are just not equipped to deal with this type of flow.
But what the U.S. could be doing better, is that this is really a regional issue. Each country is unique and if you look at the data in our report about what’s happening in each country, you are going to see some clear difference. At the same time it’s a regional challenge—people are leaving and they are going to points North, points South—it requires a regional response. It’s not on the U.S. alone to solve. But were supporting it to recognize that there is a foreign policy element here to all of the challenges.
The humanitarian response is not going to solve the problem. The faucet has to be turned off or the water is going to keep flowing. To that end, the U.S. needs to address the root causes, and it has a role in addressing the root causes. First, on the top of the list, is to continue violence-prevention efforts—like job creation, education, strengthen women’s counsels—do a lot more institution strengthening, more government programs.
What is the American media getting wrong about this story? Or, what’s the take-home point we miss?
This is not a migration story. This is a humanitarian crisis, and an example of consequences of weak governments. It’s a humanitarian crisis and a foreign policy issue. We’re responding in a humanitarian way, and supporting the government to do so, but that’s not going to shut off the faucet.
The normal migration patterns in this region have changed. While it is still a mixed migration flow—people are still coming for a number of reasons. There is a growing number of people who are literally fleeing for their lives.