In Central America, war without a name and refugees without papers

By Noah Bullock
Posted Aug 5, 2014

[Huffington Post] Editor’s note: This piece originally ran in the HuffPost LatinoVoices Blog. 

The child migrant crisis has increased awareness in the United States about violence in Central America, and for the first time, people are considering the possibility that some migrants from the region may actually be refugees. This new narrative focuses specifically on the child victims of homicide, torture, and sexual assaults that have arrived in recent months. The surge of unaccompanied minors however, cannot be seen in isolation from a legacy of protracted conflict and displacement that has gripped the region and produced refugees for nearly fifty years. Likewise, solutions to the crisis must focus on creating real options for families struggling for basic security and well-being in societies battered by decades of violent conflict and exodus.

In El Salvador, where I am the Executive Director of a human rights organization, there have been 30,000 deaths in the country since 2005. The legacy of conflict in Central America stretches back to the period of social unrest and civil war that lasted from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. During this period, hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were displaced. The violent social conflict that we are witnessing today remains largely nameless, anonymously mounting a death toll over twenty years that makes the region the most violent in the world and deadlier than it was during the civil war period. Our Human Rights Program specializes in cases of forced displacement and last year we received over 150 Salvadorans seeking international protection. Approximately 130,000 Salvadorans were internally displaced in 2012 and 60,000 fled the country. Currently, between 60-70 percent of child migrantsinterviewed over the past few months name violence as the primary reason for fleeing their homes.

The White House’s strategy to accelerate deportation, double down on border security, and minimally fund repatriation does nothing to address the conflict that produces refugees and evades the international responsibility to protect those who desperately need it. Currently, Central American families are stuck between two bad options: risk trafficking and an undocumented existence for their children in the United States, or violence and lack of opportunities at home. Short of blaming families in the Northern Triangle, politicians on both sides of the border cast the coyotes, or traffickers, as the bad guys of the humanitarian and refugee crisis. However, the reality is that for families caught in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, the coyotes offer the best option to safeguard their children’s lives and livelihood.

Salvadorans have multiple motives for leaving, but the motives have a common origin: refugees are either running from the conflict’s bullets, or its equally murderous effects on social development and economic growth. The 2013 United Nations Human Development Report on El Salvador describes a society that is marked by inequality and violence, incapable of producing quality opportunities for its people. The report’s coordinator, Carolina Rovira, calls the situation a “vicious stew” whose ingredients include, “the fragility of family structures, the lack of quality education, the powerful social control of the gangs, the stagnation of the labor market, and lack of political leadership.” The World Bank report on El Salvador calculates the annual economic cost of the violent conflict to be over 2 billion dollars or 10.8 percent of GNP and that it costs the average business an annual 4.5 percent reduction in sales. The deteriorated social and economic conditions in the communities drive Central American families to flee the conflict before their lives are directly threatened.

Even policy makers that recognize violence as a primary cause of displacement are careful to distinguish, including in the case of the children, between those who are forced to flee directly by violence and those who are escaping the resulting economic and social conditions. This analysis justifies the orthodox policy approach to minimize the number of children who are granted international protection for fear of opening “the floodgates,” and punishes the children perceived to be seeking opportunities with swift and certain deportation.

The crisis can be resolved and regional stability can be restored through regional cooperation on strategies that create options for families in crisis, not further restricting them. Specifically, families in the Northern Triangle need options to: (1) mend family structures torn by conflict and exodus, (2) guarantee security, well-being and economic opportunity, (3) provide individuals with access to international protection when facing immediate threats of death and violence, and (4) end the protracted conflict through a peace and reconciliation process between civil society, gangs, and the government.

It will take political courage from leaders on both sides of the border to recognize the gravity of the violent conflict and break the ideological and policy paralysis around immigration and the obligation to protect. In the mean time, there is a “vicious stew” simmering south of our border, and the coyotes still have the best option on the table for the refugees who seek a way out.

— Noah Bullock is the executive director of Foundation Cristosal, a human rights and community development organization in El Salvador.