Summit addresses humanitarian crisis in Central America, US response

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Sep 20, 2016

[Episcopal News Service] Central American migrants arriving at the U.S. border in record numbers no longer makes mainstream news headlines, but that doesn’t mean the crisis in the Northern Triangle has abated.

In 2014, 69,000 unaccompanied minors, mothers and children arrived at the U.S. border, bringing attention to the high number of people forcibly displaced by violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. By August 2016, that number had reached 160,000, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The U.S. response to the crisis has largely been one of increasing security at the border, detention and interdiction by Mexico, of minors and families seeking refuge in the United States. In 2015, Mexico intercepted and returned 200,000 Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans to the Northern Triangle, a region that suffered 17,500 violent deaths in that same year.

These deterrence policies are not working, said Donald M. Kerwin Jr., executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, during a Sept. 20 Shadow Summit to examine the United States’ response to the Central American migrant crisis that has for years been unfolding in its backyard. (Read a report on the Central American Humanitarian Crisis and US Policy Responses here.)

The Sept. 20 Shadow Summit came one day after a historic United Nations summit where world leaders adopted the New York Declaration, a document that commits countries around the world to protect the rights of refugees and migrants and to share the responsibility for the record number of people on the move.

Noah Bullock, executive director of Cristosal, an El Salvador-based human rights organization with roots in the Episcopal and Anglican churches, participated in one of two panel discussions during the Shadow Summit and talked about the reasons people continue to flee violence in the Northern Triangle.

It’s “first a failure of protection,” said Bullock, who was in New York to attend the U.N. summit to advocate for the rights of migrants and refugees. “Guatemala and El Salvador continue to deny that violence is the cause of displacement.”

Honduras has recognized it, but continues to struggle with how to address it, he added.

Another reason people continue to flee is that governments criminalize the displaced, associating them with the gang members who have committed violence and threatened violence against them, he said.

Ultimately, he said, the decision to flee is a “human decision with multiple causes,” influenced by the individual’s and families’ perception of the threat level and the perception of the state’s ability to protect them.

On Sunday, Sept. 17, Bullock spoke to the Diocese of Pennsylvania’s Committee for Central American Migrants and Refugees at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.

“Cristosal’s leadership on the Central American refugee situation is the direct result of its grassroots network of supporters in the Episcopal Church,” said Bullock. “Their commitment to us and our mission allows us to be a nimble and independent human rights organization that initiates responses to immediate problems on the ground, not [only] when grant funds become available.”

It is that support that has allowed Cristosal to take the lead in protecting the rights of people forcibly displaced by violence. Cristosal has worked to establish legal precedents for the protection of victims displaced by violence in El Salvador, provides shelter, protection and legal assistance for victims and is working to build regional resettlement capacity.

“We were able to implement pilot programs and build a model for working [with displaced people] that now is being identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and by the U.S. Government as good models for expansion. And we have now been awarded grants by both those organizations to do what we are doing in El Salvador, and begin to expand those models into Honduras and Guatemala,” said Bullock in his presentation in Pennsylvania.

Cristosal also founded and coordinates the Civil Society Working Group Against Forced Displacement by Violence, the leading national body in El Salvador advocating for the rights of those forcibly displaced by violence. The working group maintains the largest existing database of cases of forced displacement and regularly publishes reports and policy recommendations for both civil society and state entities.

The Episcopal and Anglican churches are present in the three Northern Triangle countries: The Diocese of Honduras belongs to Province IX of the Episcopal Church, and the dioceses of Guatemala and El Salvador belong to the Anglican Church of the Central Region of America, known by its Spanish acronym, IARCA.

In November 2015, Cristosal brought together Anglican and Episcopal bishops from the region, as well as human rights ombudsmen to discuss a regional approach to forced displacement.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in October 2015 warned of the “looming refugee crisis” emanating from Central America.

Also on Sept. 20, President Barack Obama co-hosted a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, alongside Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden. The leaders’ summit appealed to governments to pledge increased commitments to resettle refugees. Obama’s remarks are here.

Worldwide, war and persecution have forced a total of 65.3 million people, 21.3 million of them refugees, from their homes, four times more than a decade ago and the largest number of people displaced since World War II.

“It’s easy for us to look across the ocean and say the problem is over there, but the truth is that we have a refugee crisis right here in our hemisphere,” said Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel, who serves on Cristosal’s board, in a recent video that addresses the Central American crisis.

The Northern Triangle is one of the most violent places in the world, said Rickel. “Last year, 700,000 people were displaced from their homes by violence and 17,500 people were killed.”

Of the 85,000 refugees projected for resettlement in the United States in 2016, 3,000 were expected to come from Latin America and the Caribbean.

— Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.