A large caravan of migrants from Central America, trying to reach the U.S., walks along a road Oct. 21 in Tapachula, Mexico. CNS photo/Ueslei Marclino, Reuters

Caravan puts refugee policy on hot seat

  • November 5, 2018

A caravan of up to 7,000 migrants heading north through Mexico toward a possible showdown at the American border are highlighting an urgent issue in Canadian refugee policy. 

Many of the marchers would likely qualify for refugee status in Canada, according to Canadian Jesuits International executive director Jenny Cafiso. But if they enter the U.S., Canada’s “Safe Third Country Agreement” with Washington would bar them from making a claim in Canada.

“I think many of them would be able to argue a case that their lives are under threat,” said Cafiso. Cafiso was in Honduras visiting a Jesuit human rights organization and a radio station, Fundacion ERIC and Radio Progresso, just weeks before the caravan took shape.

There have been caravans of migrants heading north from Central America in past years, though none as big as this year’s march. Migrants say they choose to travel with the large groups because they offer protection against human traffickers, thieves and other threats.

The Safe Third Country Agreement requires refugee and asylum seekers to request protection in the first safe country they reach. But it could put legitimate refugees at risk when they arrive at a heavily armed U.S.-Mexican border, where they may be denied the right to ask for asylum or be returned to their country of origin, Cafiso argued.

“It’s a problem,” she said. “That’s why there are calls in Canada to revisit the Safe Third Country Agreement. We can no longer say that these people are safe — that the third country is a safe place for them to be.”

U.S. President Donald Trump is sending more than 5,000 troops to the border to secure key points of entry and has said asylum seekers would be forced into “tent cities” where they would be detained until courts decide whether they can stay in the U.S. 

In July 2017 the Canadian Council of Churches joined with Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Council for Refugees in a legal challenge to the Safe Third Country Agreement. A court date has not yet been set.

The U.S.-based Franciscan Action Network has highlighted the rights of caravan marchers under international law.

“These people simply want to live with their families, free of fear. According to international law, they have a right to seek asylum where they feel safe,” the network said in a statement on the caravan.

Central American partners of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace have said that caravan marchers have legitimate reasons for fleeing Guatemala and Honduras.

“For us Christians, it is painful to see how our people are forced to take the decision to leave their country,” said Caritas Choluteca (Honduras) director Danilo Puerto Ocampo. “The government and its cronies continue pilfering the resources that should serve to improve health, education, etc.” 

Recent promises from the Honduras federal government to set up an aid plan for caravan marchers who return home do not impress Ocampo.

“This is a farce,” he said. “Handouts and gifts will lead to no development. Rather, they will cause further dependency and poverty.”

Marching with the caravan, Radio Progresso and ERIC co-ordinator Yolanda Gonzalez told The Catholic Register Canada should not remain on the sidelines.

“Canada should start looking at Central America, as more and more people from Central America are looking to Canada due to human rights violations to asylum seekers and migrants in the U.S.,” she said in an Oct. 26 e-mail.

ERIC and Radio Progresso are supported by both Development and Peace and Canadian Jesuits International.

The caravan is an outgrowth of a “humanitarian crisis,” Gonzalez said. “It’s due to migration policies based on national security rather than human security.”

More attention paid to the 2016 UN framework for a Global Compact on Refugees could lower the temperature of the global migration crisis, according to Gonzalez. The goal should be “safe, orderly and regular migration.”

“It (the Global Compact) should be an opportunity for leader-countries, such as Canada, to point out how far we are from that goal. It is time to develop new and creative sets of rules to handle the reality of human mobility in today’s world, and Canada has a word to say.”

She urges Canadians to get their government “to press Honduras’ government on human rights violations and its responsibility for the root causes of the caravan.”

Most of all, Canadians must resist fear-mongering about the people trudging north through the heat of southern Mexico.

“These are supposed to be terrorists?” said an incredulous Cafiso. “Women and children risking — like throwing their kids over the bridge? What mother would do that if it wasn’t that they saw that back home was even worse?”

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