Who really gets to tell migrants, 'Do not come here?'

Kamala Harris told Guatemalans not to make dangerous trek of exploitation to US

Migrants being blocked in Guatemala earlier this year: Natural disasters, conflict and Covid-19 has decimated local economies, deepened poverty and precipitated a new wave of outward migration northward.

Migrants being blocked in Guatemala earlier this year: Natural disasters, conflict and Covid-19 has decimated local economies, deepened poverty and precipitated a new wave of outward migration northward.

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“Do not come. Do not come.”

This was the astonishingly blunt statement made by Kamala Harris last week to Guatemalans on her first overseas trip as US vice president. As surprisingly undiplomatic as her language may have sounded, the White House has defended her remarks, reminding critics that her statement must be seen in the context of safety and security, advising caution to those who may be thinking of making the dangerous trek towards the United States-Mexico border. This is far from unfounded advice.

The Central American corridor of migration has become notoriously dangerous, as migrants from the northern triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are targeted by criminal gangs for exploitation and extortion. In a large-scale survey of migrants travelling through Mexico carried out by Médecins Sans Frontières in 2020, one in two of the people interviewed said they were exposed to some type of violence, including cases of assault, extortion, sexual assaults and torture.

Tim Sheehan is senior research and communications officer with Concern Worldwide

Operating in an environment of increasing impunity, criminal gangs have targeted migrants for kidnapping in an attempt to extort a ransom from relatives back home. When they cannot pay, which is the case for a large proportion of families who have already sacrificed most of what they have to pay smuggler “coyotes” for the journey north, many of these migrants are “disappeared” – an estimated 2,000-plus in the last year alone.

Amid these figures are stories of almost unfathomable horror, with relatives left without knowledge of their loved ones, many of whom have died in large-scale massacres, their bodies buried alongside countless others in mass graves. The process of attempting to find closure for these relatives is impossibly arduous, as they are caught up not only in the vast anonymity of mass exodus and Mexico’s criminal underworld, but also the bureaucracy, ineptitude and embedded corruption of state forces. Often it is the elderly who are left at home in countries such as Guatemala, waiting years for confirmation of their children’s deaths.

Foreign policy

Guatemala is a tragically relevant place for the vice-president to make her first overseas visit, but what strikes almost every visitor to the small Central American country is also its overwhelming beauty. Che Guevara, Aldous Huxley and Ingrid Bergman are among many who have written about the unparalleled splendour of what is the heart of the Mayan world, its verdant landscape of lakes and volcanoes dotted with the ruins of an ancient civilisation. When I visited in late 2019, I couldn’t help but be drawn to ask the same, perhaps reductive, question. How could people leave a country so full of life, community and natural beauty, one of such dense history and culture, to travel such a dangerous road, just to get to the United States?

We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing

The answer is, of course, complex. And among the reasons why Harris has faced such a backlash for her comments is the central role of the US in much of Guatemala’s turmoil. As her Democratic Party colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted last week, “The US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilisation in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

The scars of US foreign policy, both clandestine and overt, run deep down the spine of Central and South America, forming part of a complex set of drivers for endemic violence, along with the infamously ubiquitous drug trade. Central America has long been the most violent region of the world that isn’t officially at war. For the majority of migrants, particularly those with families, violence has been cited as the primary reason for fleeing their home country.

Vulnerable people – refugees, migrants, relatives and families – are exploited in increasing numbers, often ending up in detention centres of visceral depravity

Into this mix has come the climate crisis and now the scourge of Covid-19. Twin Category-4 hurricanes made landfall in Central America within two weeks of each other in late 2020, decimating huge sections of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras. These were the latest in a series of increasingly ferocious weather events in a region that is experiencing more named storms than ever before. The combined effect of worsening natural disasters, persistent conflict and Covid-19 has decimated local economies, deepening poverty and precipitated a new wave of outward migration northward.

Smuggler-run routes

These factors have led to a definitively Central-American crisis, but the same dynamic is driving mass perilous exodus elsewhere in places such as the Sahel. A combination of worsening humanitarian crises, deepening poverty and increasingly militarised securitisation of European borders has forged the creation of some of the most dangerous and lucrative smuggler-run routes through the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

Along these routes, vulnerable people – refugees, migrants, relatives and families – are exploited in increasing numbers, often ending up in detention centres of visceral depravity in Libya, or in the bottom of the Mediterranean, especially as search and rescue missions have been curtailed since 2019.

The intent behind Harris’s trip to Guatemala – to “give people hope at home” – may well have been to ensure that her administration is spared the shocking imagery of migrant families detained at the border, as we saw during the Trump administration. In Europe, a deep blue border ensures that we don’t have the same problem.

Since the refugee crisis of 2015, silently, but with increasing force, the European border controls agency has been rapidly expanded, backed up by the European Commission. A controversial deal with the Libyan coastguard has led to thousands of people being returned to the North African coast and detained in situations that Human Rights Watch have described as hell on earth. For those who have sacrificed everything to flee the violence of their home country, it often pales in comparison to the violence at the borders of their destination.

As the numbers of forcibly displaced people continue to climb and the securitisation of borders increases, it begs a deeper question in response to the remarks of Kamala Harris: who gets to say, “do not come here”?

As we grapple with correcting structural inequalities that have plagued our societies for many years, it is becoming increasingly clear the next frontier of equality – where you are born – will be more contentious than any battle that has come before.

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