My recent radio silence can be blamed on a new job: an exciting new opportunity to be more involved in research and advocacy on displacement in Central America. I’ve been spending my days recently learning a host of new skills: proposal writing; situation monitoring and infographic designing. The power has gone off a couple of times in the past few weeks here in Puerto Rico (nearly eight months after Hurricane Maria), so I’ve also developed some new contingency planning skills such as knowing exactly where the nearest café with a generator is and always keeping my computer fully charged. This recent article from The New York Times runs through the current state of the response to Maria, and the various bungles made over the past few months with respect to the government response and the reconstruction of the power grid: a chaotic tangle of overlapping missions and fumbling coordination, according to the NYT.
The other day, on one of my café trips, I noticed a somewhat twee chalkboard entitled ‘what are you grateful for?’. People had written a range of response such as ‘love’ and ‘coffee’. As I just spent the past few hours reading reports of the dangers of being a journalist in Central America, the first thing that came to mind was ‘I’m grateful for the work of excellent journalists’. So on that note, here’s my pick of the month of interesting articles, with the common denominator this month being exceptional storytelling, in particular of difficult journeys made by migrants and refugees. Make yourself a coffee because these are worth a good peruse.
Firstly, Reuters ran a special report recently, including photos and animations, documenting the journeys made by Venezuelans travelling across South America to Chile, in order to start new lives. Journalist Alexandra Ulmer and photographer Carlos Garcia Rawlins took the bus journey all the way from Caracas to Chile, crossing five countries, documenting the lives of people young and old making the difficult decision to leave, often having to split up their families and leave behind their possessions, in order to find safety, security and stability. UNHCR recently reported that 5000 people are currently leaving Venezuela every day, one of the largest movements of people in the continent’s recent history. The Reuters report provides detailed personal accounts of why people are leaving: middle class families losing all purchasing power, unable to buy basic medicines for their children, missing school because they couldn’t afford to take the bus, people losing weight due to food scarcity and staying at home for fear of violence in the streets.
Another migration route: this time without a bus service, the way forward guided only by footsteps in the desert. Journalist Benedict Moran published a photo report for IRINNewsfrom a migration route in Djibouti; a crossroads where Yemenis arrive fleeing war, and at the same time, where migrants and refugees from across Africa pass through in order to get to Yemen and beyond. The photos and animations on this report are incredible – showing just how bleak and treacherous the journeys must be: many (…) walk for days across lava fields and arid zones where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius. Seeing the pictures of this terrain just made me think (perhaps somewhat flippantly) that if a European ‘adventurer’ with a fancy camera made the journey across this desert, they would probably be offered a book deal or sponsorship at the end of it; instead people cross without shoes, at risk of being kidnapped, subjected to sexual violence, or death. These are the types of journeys ‘migrants’ are making, these are the journeys that make the refugee/migrant dichotomy inadequate for the 21st century.
Finally, two podcasts: firstly for the Spanish speakers (and for those that can listen and grasp the gist, there’s an English transcript). Radio Ambulante is a podcast in Spanish telling stories from Latin America, that works with storytellers and radio producers from across the continent. I cannot recommend it enough, and in particular, this episode ‘No Country for Young Men‘ by Daniel Alarcón on everyday life, violence and displacement in Honduras. It is a superb piece that weaves a story of separated families, remittances, bravery, fear and journeys. Without spoiling the plot, I will say that the podcast includes so many different layers, including the journey abroad made by one, as well as the life for those left behind – with daily journeys of skirting danger, or the anti-journey of resorting to confinement. Finally, especially for those who have had their interest piqued by the current ‘migrant caravan’ news in the US – check out the three part podcast series by Radiolab on the history of the US-Mexico border. I’m only halfway through so I can’t vouch for the third episode, but Radiolab has never let me down when it comes to exceptional storytelling, so do go and check it out.
Thanks for reading and do let me know any great pieces that are on your radar this month!
This is the first in a series of regular round-ups of articles and resources that I will be posting. I’m an avid reader of regular ‘recommended reads’ made by bloggers or news sites (such as IRINnews and Refugees Deeply), so I thought it would be time to establish my own compilations of some of the links that I’ve found and pondered over. Do leave me a comment below to let me know if you also found these articles interesting!
On new renewable energy perpetuating old power structures: I’m currently in Puerto Rico, which is five months into recovering from the mighty Hurricane Maria. While most of the capital, San Juan, is back to operating at most of its previous capacity, the street that I’m living on only just got electricity back this week. As the island’s old grid is gradually being repaired and power cables restored, people across the island have been dependant on the few neighbours on their streets running noisy generators, especially for keeping their fridges running. After the storm I was caught up in the internet buzz that the post-hurricane reconstruction could generate a massive boom for renewable energy on the island. However, this article from the Puerto Rican Centre for Investigative Journalism (CPIPR) was an interesting read, explaining how the majority of solar panels in Puerto Rico are leased from a Texan company and connected to the main electricity grid. To the surprise of many of those who thought they would achieve energy independence through investing in solar panels, when the grid doesn’t work (such as, for example, after a major hurricane), the panels shut off. As a researcher from the University of Puerto Rico puts it in the article “We went from fossil dependency to renewables dependency with a company that is not from here. We continue to send the money out of the island,”. As a response to customers complaining about not being able to depend on power despite having the panels, the company proposed supplying batteries, at an extra cost, $100 a month for 10 years…
On Hurricane Irma potentially ending collective land ownership in Barbuda: I was curious to know how reconstruction was going on other Caribbean islands, and came across this short video and this short documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Barbuda. The land on Barbuda has been held in common ownership since the end of slavery, meaning that it cannot be bought or sold. Developers can lease land if their projects are accepted by a majority of Barbudans. However, to pay for post Irma reconstruction, the government of Antigua and Barbuda wants to end this common ownership system and allow for private investment. Foreign investors are eyeing up the pristine beaches, including Robert de Niro, who is looking to build a mega luxury resort. In an attempt to keep their unique political system (and I assume to prevent the island becoming a giant golf course), many Barbudans are fighting back against this move by the government. But as this documentary reminds us, it can be extremely difficult for displaced people to defend their land rights, especially when they are far from home, dispersed, and so much of their energy has to go into finding new schools for their children, securing new jobs, and protecting their belongings which are still sitting under an open roof. It’s the opportune time for land grabs.
On learning the lessons from engaging with climate deniers: Taking my reflections on the growing realities of climate change a step further, I started listening to the podcast ‘Warm Regards’ one afternoon last week, and found the latest episode on tips for engaging with climate deniers quite interesting. In a post-Brexit/Trump world, I think we are becoming increasingly aware that although our echo chambers are cosy, they must be dismantled if we are to see any real change. I’m always interested in the particular topic of engaging with people who are politically very different to me, especially as I’ve been really terrible at this in the past and have charged into conversations like a bull. One of the concepts from the podcast stuck with me: some people may choose to deny climate change because they see the solutions as taking away some of their fundamental freedoms, preferred comforts or parts of their identity, and we have to recognise how this can be scary or difficult, but in a sense, we also have to answer the question of ‘What part of me do I have to let go of?’. The guest on the show, a climate scientist called Katharine Hayhoe, mentioned for example when she was challenged by people who have no scientific background, nor respect for facts, she would feel as if it was a direct attack on her identity as a scientist. She raised that it’s important to leave these emotions, which are directly tied to our personal egos, aside, in order to engage in conversations outside ivory towers. If we expect climate deniers to have to lose a part of their identities (such as driving an SUV), we should be prepared to lose a part of our identities (such as being respected as scientists, for example). This was super interesting to me, as a pointer for my next conversation on migration and displacement, with people who may not agree with me or who believe false information. The aim is not to get people to agree with the facts or to be respected as an ‘expert’, but to find common ground in which to plant some seeds of increased tolerance and change.
That’s what’s been on my mind this week! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and any recommendations you may have.
With homicide levels in the region on a par with some of the world’s worst armed conflicts¹, gangs and criminal groups represent the new face of organised violence in Latin America. For many people, having a close family member or friend who has experienced kidnapping, mugging, robbery, extortion, sexual violence or murder is commonplace, and in some countries the scale and severity of the violence are broadly comparable with the insurgency-based conflicts of earlier decades.
Increasing efforts are being made by some States, international agencies and non-governmental actors to respond to the violations perpetrated by gangs and criminal groups, yet displaced people are still not getting the protection they need. A first step in dismantling barriers to accessing protection is to secure increased global recognition of violence and persecution as the primary drivers of forced displacement in the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA). The next step is for states to improve their ability to reach displaced communities and to identify those with specific protection needs.
An encouraging development in the push for increased recognition of the situation came in early 2017 when Honduras announced that it would be one of the case-study countries for the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), a process led by UNHCR to provide inputs into the Global Compact on Refugees. A number of countries in the region then also announced their intention to be case-study countries, enabling collaboration for a regional response to displacement in the Northern Triangle. The participation of the NTCA region in the CRRF process provides the opportunity to address a context with different circumstances and needs from those of traditional refugee situations. With gang-related violence increasing as a driver of displacement globally, there are far-reaching implications for other regions in what is done, and not done, in Honduras.
The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) is the name given to the first of two Annexes to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted in September 2016. The CRRF promotes a sustainable approach linking humanitarian action with development assistance in situations involving large-scale movements of refugees, and focuses on a number of actions and best practices in four areas: reception and admission measures; support for immediate and ongoing needs; support for host countries; and enhanced opportunities for durable solutions. A number of countries have agreed to be case-studies for the CRRF; the lessons drawn from these countries’ experiences will inform the preparation of the Global Compact on Refugees in time for the UN General Assembly in 2018.
Honduras is the only country in the NTCA which has publicly recognised the phenomenon of internal displacement, and is now working to adopt national legislation on preventing internal displacement and protecting and assisting IDPs, the first of its kind in the region. However, across the region, States, international agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are only now starting to grasp the full extent of internal displacement in the region. Unlike more visible situations of displacement such as from the Syrian conflict, people fleeing criminal violence often try to remain unnoticed. Access to data is improving, with surveys having been conducted in Honduras and El Salvador but these only partially cover the situation. A study from 2014 found 174,000 IDPs in Honduras but it only covered 20 out of 290 municipalities. Based on this study, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre projected that this figure had risen to 190,000 IDPs in 2016. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has undertaken its own surveys to find children who have dropped out of school in areas affected by extreme violence, and has consistently found that actual numbers of people affected are higher than government estimates.
Governments and NGOs often speak of the ‘invisibility’ of internal displacement in the Northern Triangle, especially as IDPs tend to lie low to avoid being followed by their persecutors and do not register with the authorities due to lack of trust. Those working directly with affected communities, such as NRC, know that this invisibility means that the communities are very difficult to access. States often have no control over zones affected by gang violence and are unable or unwilling to provide basic services for communities living there. For humanitarians, negotiating with gangs to secure access to vulnerable displaced people is unchartered territory. Some organisations, such as NRC, have managed to gain some access through careful negotiation but such access is dependent on many factors that could change instantaneously. In May 2017, NRC provided humanitarian assistance for 200 people who had been newly displaced from their homes in San Pedro Sula in Honduras due to a rise in gang warfare; more could have been done if the government and other humanitarian actors had had unhindered access to the affected population.
Identifying protection cases
In parallel to gaining better access to internally displaced people, States must also improve their methods of identifying protection needs. Governments of the NTCA continually claim that a mere 5-10% of all people leaving their countries do so for reasons related to violence,² and that the other 90-95% of people leave for economic reasons or to reunite with family. In the meantime, studies carried out by UN agencies and NGOs reveal dramatically different figures, with between 40 and 60% of children, adolescents and women surveyed leaving for reasons related to violence.
It may be that generalised violence has become so normalised that many of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced across the region do not immediately identify violence as the primary cause of their displacement. The disparity in statistics, however, can be partially explained by the conditions in which protection cases are identified and data is gathered. NTCA government figures recording cross-border displacement come from interviews taken in deportee reception centres processing people who have been sent back from the United States and Mexico. While in recent years the Honduran government has significantly improved the conditions of these reception centres, which now provide immediate assistance and child-friendly spaces, they remain inadequate locations for collecting complex and personal data on motivations for leaving the country. Interviews are often conducted in spaces that lack the necessary privacy for divulging sensitive information, for example, about abuse, violence or fears of persecution from gangs. Government employees (who in some cases are volunteers) conduct the interviews but often have insufficient training in identifying protection risks.
Decades of state violence and corruption have eroded trust in the system, and there is consequently little incentive to confide in state officials when needing to seek protection. Arguing that most people want to leave the reception centre as soon as possible, Honduran authorities rush deportees through registration, medical and psychological check-ups, and entrance interviews, and then give them a small meal – all in the space of an hour – before putting deportees on a bus to the closest urban area.
These circumstances are not conducive to people reporting the often complex and traumatic original reasons for leaving the country, to say nothing of the human rights abuses they may have suffered during their flight. In many cases, returnees also know that the capacity of the government to provide a real solution (such as referral pathways or resettlement opportunities) to their case is limited, and that even their capacity to follow up on individual cases is scarce. With few people granted international protection from gang violence, displaced people may see little value in requesting asylum upon arrival in destination countries. In addition, do they indicate economic reasons as their principal reason for making the journey north in order to demonstrate that they are willing to work and contribute? Similarly, do they declare family reunification as the reason for their journey in order to show that they have a support network in the country of destination?
In destination countries, many people are offered the choice of either signing their own deportation notices to be sent back home or facing a lengthy detention sentence while their case is processed. Both in destination country and upon return, it is often easier for individuals to report that they left the country seeking economic opportunities or family reunification, so that the authorities will leave them alone – and they can try the journey again.
Seizing the CRRF process
Across the NTCA there is a fundamental lack of understanding around push and pull factors of displacement, and the role that violence plays in the journeys of many. Humanitarian organisations must recognise this gap in understanding of drivers and the accompanying failure to identify people in need of protection. They must also ask themselves whether the law, policies and programmes developed for protecting and assisting displaced persons in conflict contexts such as Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo should be applied equally to these scenarios of criminal violence, or whether other solutions and approaches are needed.
The CRRF process in Honduras is an opportunity to address these issues and, ultimately, to protect people displaced internally and across borders. UNHCR and NGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council are currently gathering recommendations for action from States, displaced people, civil society organisations, faith groups and local communities. In October 2017, States from the NTCA and the wider region will meet in Honduras to define and pledge commitments to stronger collaboration and protection mechanisms and decide on a Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework. This process must translate into sustainable engagement of humanitarian and development actors, greater responsibility sharing fostered by States through strengthened national protection structures, more funding for protection, and a dramatic increase in legal pathways for those in need. Actors across the NTCA must identify and acknowledge the role of violence in driving displacement, and seize the window of opportunity to act now and make a real difference for people in urgent need of protection.
See Cantor D J ‘Gang violence as a cause of forced migration in the Northern Triangle of Central America’ in Cantor D J and Rodríguez Serna N (Eds) (2016) The New Refugees, Crime and Displacement in Latin America, pp.27-45.
Statistics cited in discussions with Honduran authorities in November 2016, and in public statements made by Guatemalan officials at Global Consultations on Migration in May 2017.
Imagine waking up one day to the sound of bulldozers on your street and to being told to leave your home because your land was to be the site of a new tourist holiday resort, road or airport. No forewarning or public consultation had been given. Local authorities support the project and want nothing to do with your complaints and concerns. Worse still, the project is supported by a major international institution, which aims to encourage the sustainable development of your nation. No international agency comes to support you in your forced resettlement. As a result of moving far from your workplace, you cannot maintain the same schedule and end up losing your job. Furthermore, you accumulate debts associated to moving that you cannot pay back. This is not an invented scenario: according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in 2016, the most frequently cited global estimate of people displaced by development and business activities is 15 million people a year, but this figure is considered conservative.
One of the reasons why this type of violent and traumatic displacement is rarely a global priority lies in the ethical complexity of the projects in question. Unlike conflict induced displacement, which can only be qualified as negative, on the other side of the coin of development induced displacement, is the public interest argument. If a large scale development project can demonstrate that it is in the public interest, will improve self-determination and will reduce poverty (Penz, 2002), there may be grounds for considering displacing people. Yet the true value of the project must include the true cost that it will bear: compensation and resettlement of the displaced people. Too often, this true cost is not accounted for. The Brookings Institute on Internal Displacement found in 2003 that ‘while the beneficiaries of development are numerous, the costs are being borne disproportionately by the poorest and most marginalized populations’. This goes against all aspirations for sustainable development and targets set by the SDGs and human rights treaties. States often rest on the concept of their ‘eminent domain’, the right for states to expropriate property in certain circumstances (Muggah, 2003), but fail to ensure the basic rights of their citizens.
Despite the high numbers of IDPs displaced by large-scale development projects, rivalling those displaced by conflict or climate change, no UN agency has taken charge of ensuring their protection and rehabilitation. This was particularly striking during the 2016 Olympics, while the world rejoiced at the successful athletic victories of the Refugee Olympic team. To make way for the Olympic Games infrastructure, around 6600 families had been evicted. IDMC found that the compensation given to these families did not cover the cost of an adequate home and new expenses.
Millions of people need adequate protection, frameworks to ensure their rights, and international support to ensure their new lives. Cost-benefit analysis of development projects must include ways of measuring the impact that a new project will have on local communities. Cues could be taken from similar efforts in corporate sustainability to measure how much natural and social capital has to be spent to create a product (ie. how much would the production costs raise if the company had to put a price on water). Development projects cannot keep going ahead at such a high price.
Text initially submitted to the ‘Internal displacement in law and policy: war and beyond’ module for the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration at the Refugee Law Initiative on the 13th of January 2017.