With the United States increasingly clamping down on its southern border and high numbers of Central American refugees continuing to flee the violence associated with gangs and organized crime, more and more migrants are opting to leave the continent altogether.
Some of those migrants are now likely to head Down Under. Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull told the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants on September 19 that Central American refugees will be welcomed to his country. As part of an extended plan to support refugees and displaced persons globally, Turnbull promised participation in an US-led resettlement program for Central American refugees who are currently living in a resettlement camp in Costa Rica.
The program is an US attempt to redirect the constant flow of refugees coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. As one of the most stable and affluent countries of the area, Costa Rica has becoming a “magnet for migrants” and refugees from all over the world.
During the same summit, US President Barak Obama thanked Mexico for “absorbing” many Central American refugees before they reach the US-Mexican border — a service the United States has actively supported, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Mexico announced its Southern Border Program in July 2014 and over the following year its stepped-up migration enforcement resulted in a 71 percent increase in apprehensions of Central Americans, WOLA reported. Nevertheless, in the first six months of 2015, about 120,000 refugees from that region were stopped at the US-Mexican border, while the number of unaccompanied minors that crossed into the US increased in 2015 to 54,000. In short, the number of people leaving the violence-ridden states remains high.
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In its reaction to Prime Minister Turnbull’s announcement, the Sydney Herald described the violence ridden Central American area as “Northern Triangle of death.” The civil wars that plagued Guatemala and El Salvador and bled over into Honduras were settled in the 1990s. But the reforms and reintegration of combatants introduced by those peace processes were inefficiently implemented and in some cases undercut by political considerations.
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On top of those shortcomings, the area was invaded by US gang culture as the United States began to deport refugees who had fled to Los Angeles during the war and been absorbed by the prolific gangs that operated there. The US-born Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 (18th Street) gangs quickly took root in the Northern Triangle’s crowded, low-income neighborhoods and spread like wildfire.
The risk of suffering a violent death in Guatemala has been generally higher since the war there ended than it was during the fighting. El Salvador’s homicide rates are the highest in the world, while Honduras does not look much better.
All three states are text book examples of a phenomenon that social scientists call limited statehood — states whose institutions are not fully developed. Security forces struggle with corruption, the prisons serve as networking places for criminal organizations, and the state monopoly on the use of force is not effectively enforced.
As long as the high levels of violence persist, Australia’s promise to open its borders to Central American refugees camped in Costa Rica will offer only temporary relief. Such programs are far from solving the root causes for migration in the region.