Thursday, June 23, 2016

The niggardly US response to the Central American refugee crisis

The US first started paying attention to the flight of Central Americans from violence in the Northern Triangle when thousands of unaccompanied minors began showing up on the southern border.   The primary response of the US has been deterrence -- public service announcements and education campaigns about the dangers of the route north, expanded detention facilities for mothers and children, and round-ups and deportations of families back to Central America.  

In addition, the US has proposed two programs purported to be humanitarian responses to the flow of refugees.   The first to be announced was the Central American Minors Program.    Under this program, parents or guardians in the US can apply for their children in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala to receive refugee status and travel to the US.    A key part of the program is that children are interviewed in Central America rather than making the treacherous journey north.   (A flow chart of the process, including DNA testing, can be found here).

Since the program began in December 2014, more than 8948 applications had been filed under the Central American Minors Program, but the US government says that through the end of May 2016, it has approved only 1448 individuals for refugee or parole status

The second program provides a limited opening for Central Americans to be treated like refugees from other conflict zones around the globe.  In January of this year, the Obama administration announced that it would work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to offer aid to Northern Triangle refugees:
Speaking on foreign policy at the National Defense University in Washington on Wednesday, Kerry said: “I am pleased to announce that we have plans to expand the US refugee admissions program in order to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey that many are tempted to begin, making them at that instant easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profit.” 
The state department said it would work with the UN and non-government organisations to identify people in need of refugee protection, including human rights activists.
A department spokesman added that, unlike the existing in-country program for Central American minors, this will not be a direct application program. Instead, it will be based upon referrals from organisations that work with vulnerable populations in the three countries. Also unlike the existing Central American minors program, individuals and families without relatives in the US will be eligible.
 
The UNHCR will assist with determining who should be referred for resettlement, but the final decision will rest with the US government. The eligibility criteria will be identical to those applied throughout the world under its existing refugee admissions program.
As of now, however, this refugee resettlement proposal has only been talk and not backed up by significant actions by the US.  According to US government statistics, only 113 refugees were admitted to the US between October 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016 from El Salvador, and only 148 from the combined Northern Triangle countries. During the same time period the US deported more than 50,000 individuals back to Central America.

Despite the clear dangers of living in the murder capital of the world, the many youth, children, women and men fleeing El Salvador will not find refuge in the US.  A lucky few might find placements in the limited US programs for refugees, but the rest will join the plane loads of refugees regularly deported back to the Northern Triangle countries.

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