Private and international organizations that focus on migrants entering Mexico have put their attention on the two groups of several thousand mostly Honduran people who banded together for safety as they fled their home nations to seek refuge in countries farther north.
In an interview, Pierre Marc Rene, a French speaking Canadian, journalist and staff member of the United Nations refugee agency reported a gratifying statistic: the UNHCR, working out of its field office in Tapachula, Chiapas, has helped the Mexican federal government’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) and Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR) give working papers and asylum-seeker status to 25 percent of the estimated 7,500 Honduran men, women and children in two recent caravans.
But Kathryn Johnson, a public policy educator with the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), faces a steeper uphill climb. Her mission is to convince U.S. policymakers that the military approach in the United States’ “war on drugs” has increased rather than decreased the number of refugees from countries on Mexico’s southern border.
Last week, AFSC announced it has sent observers and advisors to the Mexico-Guatemala border, where refugees gathered in two surges that have been attracting European and North American attention. “We hope our presence can help stop future violence against the refugees,” said an AFSC observer.
But Johnson’s message is more pointed. “U.S. policy … has systematically destabilized the region over decades,” she charged. “It’s crucial to recognize our own government’s part in forcing people to flee,” she said, pointing the finger at “the U.S.-led ‘war on drugs,’ which funnels resources to police and militaries in Central America that consistently violate human rights.”
She underscored the irony in the U.S. administration’s response to the caravans, still several weeks from the U.S. border.
“Instead of addressing these root causes, the U.S. is pressuring the governments of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to close their borders and threatening to cut off aid,” she said. The punitive U.S. response this week also included Customs and Border Protection officers in riot gear blocking an international bridge in El Paso in a show of force that a CBP spokesman said was to show “operational readiness for the potential impact of the caravan.”
The UNHCR’s Rene reports that the reaction of the Mexican federal government “at the moment” has been markedly different.
Although the first step for refugees, he said, is being taken at Tapachula’s Feria Mesoamericana, a facility converted into a shelter, where they receive water, food and medical attention, are registered, given working papers and are in detention, after that they are moved to shelters run by UNHCR partner groups, where they are free to come and go.
Rene emphasized that housing in open rather than closed shelters is a key part of the U.N. approach. By allowing this, the Mexican federal government recognizes its “obligation to help refugees, based on international law. Governments have an obligation to protect refugees and recognize they have the right to flee their home countries.
“They need help,” he underscored, adding that they are different from normal foreigners residing in Mexico under the auspices of INM.
“People may hear they have arms or are a threat to our security, but we must recognize that they are fleeing a big problem. These are people who need help.”