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UN Agencies Back Asylum Rights of Central American Migrants in Exodus to US


Migrants from El Salvador embarking in the regional caravan, destined for the United States. UN agencies are providing food as well as asylum information for the hordes of people heading to America right now. The UN agencies assert the migrants’ right to be heard.

Working closely with Mexico, United Nations agencies are providing food and other necessities to thousands of migrants from Central America who are walking or riding in any vehicle they can find toward the United States. There, they are seeking asylum but face threats from the Trump administration.

The president vows that the migrants, still hundreds of miles from the Mexico-US border and in distinct groups — not the horde of invaders Trump insists — will be turned back violently by US troops, if deemed necessary.

Both the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) say that the migrants, many with young children among them, deserve the right to be heard. Many if not most of them tell aid officials and reporters along the route that they are escaping extreme violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Hundreds, however, fearing the harsh treatment they may get from the US as well as dangers on the way, are accepting asylum in Mexico or returning to their home countries.

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“IOM maintains its position that the human rights and basic needs of all migrants must be respected, regardless of their migratory status,” Christopher Gascon, the migration agency’s mission chief in Mexico, said in a report by the agency on Nov.2.

The migrants’ right to seek asylum, guaranteed by international agreements, has also been supported by numerous American and international human-rights and refugee advocates. In a policy statement following Trump’s accusative and largely unfounded remarks about the migrants on Nov. 1,  Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, wrote:

“The President’s statements about the migrant caravan are despicable. . . . The president has willfully and cynically vilified an asylum-seeker population composed of vulnerable children, women, and men. His statements about the asylum-seeker population are breathtaking in their willful inaccuracies, and conflict with information and statistics from within his own administration.

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“In the aftermath of the Holocaust — and the failure to protect Jews fleeing Nazi persecution — governments of the world adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. That Convention and its Protocol, ratified by the United States, specifies that those fleeing persecution, even if they have entered a country between ports of entry, have the right to seek asylum — and should not be punished for such entry if they present themselves to authorities and show good cause for their unauthorized presence.”

The migration agency added confirmed, reliable data in its Nov. 2 report: “In coordination with UNHCR we will continue to monitor the situation of the caravan, counting on field staff, the Mexican Office of Assistance for Migrants and Refugees and partner NGOs, providing information regarding alternatives for regular and safe migration, as well as options for voluntary returns.”

More than 1,500 migrants considering or accepting offers of asylum in Mexico have received food and hygiene kits from a government migratory station in Tapachula, in the southern state of Chiapas, according to the migration organization report. Local people along the migrants’ routes through Mexico have also been offering food, say news reports from the scene.

More than 5,500 migrants had reached southern Mexico by the night of Nov.1, according to the migration agency. The first to pass through — possibly 4,000 people — had arrived in Matías Romero, in the state of Oaxaca, northwest of Chiapas, by Nov.2.

“After walking some 850 kilometers from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, fatigue is evident in many of the migrants who spent last night in Matías Romero,” the agency said on Nov. 2. “Exhaustion and the challenges ahead have caused many migrants to opt for voluntary return, offered by Mexican authorities.” The migration agency, with some US government funding, has also been supplying food and hygiene kits to returning Hondurans.

[On Nov.7, news agencies reported that some migrants had begun arriving in Mexico City, still 500 miles or more from the Texas border. Thousands of mostly Honduran migrants gathered in Mexico City, with a handful saying President Trump’s hostility had deterred them from continuing to the US. On Nov. 7, Unicef reported that many children traveling with the caravan in Mexico are showing signs of anguish and psychosocial distress.]

“The caravan phenomenon in Central America is another expression of a migration process that the region has been facing for quite some time,” Marcelo Pisani, IOM’s regional director for Central America, North America and the Caribbean, said in the agency’s report. “It is a mixed migration flow, driven by economic factors, family reunification, violence and the search for international protection, among others. . . . ” The effective protection of human rights for all is based on the respect of processes conveyed in international treaties and national laws, which must be the frame of reference for any action that may be implemented in this situation.”

The UN refugee agency has been assigning staff to Mexican areas bordering Central American countries since mid-October. They help register asylum seekers and give technical support to Mexican officials. They also assess security threats to the migrants.

“UNHCR would like to remind countries along this route that this caravan is likely to include people in real danger,” the agency said in October. “In any situation like this it is essential that people have the chance to request asylum and have their international protection needs properly assessed, before any decision on return/deportation is made.”

This article was updated to reflect developments in the migration caravan.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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