Nowhere to Go: How Governments in the Americas Are Bungling the Migration Crisis

Alexander Betts. Foreign Affairs. Volume 98, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2019.

In 2015, over 1.2 million asylum seekers arrived in the European Union. They were fleeing war zones in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Syria; economic deprivation in Nigeria and Pakistan; and political instability in Somalia. The largest group came across the Aegean Sea; many of them reached European territory in Greece and then made their way to Germany. Others crossed the Mediterranean on rickety, overloaded boats or traversed the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, or the Gibraltar strait. Politicians and journalists labeled the situation a “crisis” to reflect its unprecedented scale. But this was not a crisis of numbers. It was a crisis of politics. European leaders initially resorted to unilateral, quick-fix solutions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel implemented a short-lived open-border policy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a razor-wire fence. Other countries sought to accommodate, sequester, or cast out the migrants-mostly to no avail. The human consequences were devastating: over 10,000 people have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean since 2015. Those who made it were greeted not as survivors but as usurpers, free riders, or covert extremists; they soon became scapegoats for the radical right. The political consequences changed Europe forever.

The Western Hemisphere now faces a migration crisis on a similar scale, with consequences that will likely be just as far-reaching. So far, this crisis has received a piecemeal treatment. Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border, Venezuelans crossing dry plains into Colombia, Bolivians seeking work in Argentina and Chile-these are treated as separate phenomena but are in fact part of the same underlying set of problems. To avoid the kind of human and political toll that the migration crisis produced in Europe, political leaders and policymakers must treat this new situation holistically and learn from past examples. Already, policymakers in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas are repeating European mistakes.

So far this year, the U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended over 800,000 people at the southern border-the highest number in over a decade. The previous peak in apprehensions occurred in 2000 and resulted mainly from “pull” factors, namely, the high demand for cheap labor. Today’s migrants, in contrast, are responding to “push” factors, including many of the same things that inspired masses of people to flee to Europe four years ago: failed or fragile states, violence, and economic insecurity. To contend with the new arrivals, the United States is weighing many of the same approaches that European countries have tried but ultimately found wanting. From border walls to bilateral deals linking immigration to trade and aid, Washington has borrowed directly from a playbook that fell short abroad. For instance, U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, requiring migrants hoping to gain asylum in the United States to have their claims assessed while they wait in Mexico, mirrors the Eu’s long-standing failed attempts to set up similar systems in Libya and elsewhere.

Despite some differences between the two cases, there are a few strategies that the New World could draw on from the Old World. The key lesson from the European experience of 2015 is that when it comes to migration, there are limits to unilateralism and bilateralism. The sense of crisis began to abate only when the eu adopted a multipronged approach grounded in cooperation among the migrants’ countries of origin, transit, and destination.

Seeing Double

The European and American crises are alike in a number of ways. The total number of people apprehended at the U.S. border or deemed inadmissible at a U.S. port of entry since October 2018 is now nearly the same as the number of asylum seekers who arrived in Europe in the whole of 2015. Observers on both sides of the Atlantic have also stumbled on eerily similar scenes. The widely published photograph of the bodies of Óscar Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande in June, resembles the picture of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler who drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015. Both images have come to symbolize the awful toll of transnational migration in a world of closed borders.

The effects of migration on the European and American political systems are likewise comparable. The rhetoric of xenophobic rightwing figures in the United States echoes-and, in some cases, draws on-the pronouncements of their European counterparts. In Europe, such rhetoric fueled anti-immigrant sentiment and encouraged support for right-wing parties. It has had similar effects in the United States, where rising xenophobia has underwritten the Trump administration’s punitive approach to migrants.

There are more parallels between the two crises when it comes to their causes, their consequences, and governments’ responses. Both crises resulted from state collapse. In Europe, the immediate trigger was the Syrian civil war. State fragility in Afghanistan and Iraq also contributed to mass displacement, and the chaos in Libya created a transit option and haven for smugglers facilitating movement from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean. In the Americas, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have grown highly unstable in recent years. Guatemala appears on the “high warning” list of the Fragile States Index; Honduras is just one grade below. In these states, governing capacity is low, corruption is high, and organized crime dominates business, politics, and society. Since the summer of 2018, all three countries have experienced severe drought. Crop failure rates have reached higher than 80 percent; as a result, food insecurity has become a major cause of outmigration. On the opposite side of the Caribbean, Venezuela has crumbled under its president and would-be strongman, Nicolás Maduro. Over four million people have fled the country, the majority bound for Colombia, Ecuador, or Peru, making this the second-largest displacement crisis in the world.

The Americas are also witnessing a human tragedy as dramatic as the one that engulfed Europe in 2015, when more than 3,700 people drowned while crossing the Mediterranean. The number of those dying at the U.S.-Mexican border is considerably smaller-around 400 in the first eight months of this year-but the figure is still significant. What is more, that statistic does not account for the thousands of people who have been subjected to inhumane conditions or have suffered injuries on the journey north. Meanwhile, the fact that the richest country in the world has resorted to indefinitely detaining migrant children signals a lapse in the application of human rights standards similar to what Europe witnessed in 2015.

Europe’s initial response to the crisis was characterized by unilateralism rather than international cooperation. In 2015, the 28 EU states struggled to agree on a common response. Merkel’s plea for open borders fell on deaf ears, as Austria and Hungary quickly shut their doors. A major source of frustration for northern European states was the sense that southern European states were largely indifferent to the problem, simply waving migrants through in the hope that they would move northward. The Mexican government also stood by when migrant caravans originating in Central America crossed Mexico en route to the United States in late 2018. And just as richer northern European countries were unable to force their southern neighbors to take more responsibility for the problem, Washington’s unilateral efforts to bully or bribe Mexico to respond more energetically have come to naught.

Although South American countries have been far more receptive to Venezuelan migrants than their northern neighbors have been to those fleeing Central America, they have similarly struggled to develop standardized responses or mechanisms for regional collaboration. The distribution of migrants across the region is highly uneven: by the end of 2018, there were around 1.3 million in Colombia, 768,000 in Peru, 288,000 in Chile, 263,000 in Ecuador, 168,000 in Brazil, and 130,000 in Argentina. Each of these countries handles work permits, public services, and refugee status differently. In light of the xenophobic backlash in several countries, some governments have put in place deterrence measures similar to those that European states used back in 2015; Ecuador, for instance, has introduced a policy requiring Venezuelans to present their criminal records at the border in response to an upsurge in anti-immigrant violence in late 2018.

Ditch the Dictionary

The crisis in the Americas-like the European one before it-has raised questions about the usefulness of conventional categories such as “refugees” and “economic migrants.” The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” In the 1980 Refugee Act, the U.S. Congress enshrined that description in U.S. law, as well. But the 1951 definition was written to address the upheavals of the early Cold War, especially the emigration of Soviet dissidents. Today, most migrants are not fleeing powerful regimes that are out to get them. Nor are they simply seeking better economic opportunities. Rather, they are running from states that have failed or that are so fragile that life has become difficult to bear for their citizens. What Europe saw in 2015 and what the Americas are witnessing today are not simply refugee flows or marketdriven population movements but rather “survival migration”-a term I initially coined to describe the exodus of Zimbabweans from Robert Mugabe’s regime in the early years of this century. Between 2003 and 2010, around two million Zimbabweans fled to South Africa and other neighboring states. Most of them wanted to escape hyperinflation, banditry, and food insecurity-the economic consequences of the underlying political situation-rather than political persecution per se. Because the majority of these migrants could not be described as either refugees or economic migrants, humanitarian action around the crisis stalled.

Many of the migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015, notably those from Syria, were clearly refugees under the 1951 convention. Others- including some Albanians and Kosovars who used the Balkan routes toward Germany alongside the Syrians-were plainly economic migrants. But significant numbers of those crossing the Aegean were fleeing fragile states such as Afghanistan and Iraq. European governments were, by and large, unsure of how to label these migrants. In the first quarter of this year, 46 percent of Iraqi asylum seekers received recognition in Germany, compared with 13 percent in the United Kingdom. Petitioners from failed or fragile Middle Eastern or sub-Saharan African countries faced-and still face-a sort of recognition lottery whose outcome depends on whether judges and bureaucrats are prepared to shoehorn today’s circumstances into Cold War categories. But few European governments wanted to abandon the old terminology and categories. Governments led by right-of-center parties did not want to open themselves up to possibly greater obligations; those led by left-of-center parties did not want to risk jeopardizing the 1951 convention.

A similar dynamic seems to be at work in the Americas today, where outdated notions obscure the reality of survival migration. Nowhere is this truer than in Central America. In the first eight months of this year, around 508,000 people left the so-called Northern Triangle region, which consists of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, bound for the United States. This represents almost double the number who made that trip in any single year since 2014, an increase that has played a major role in the dramatic spike in U.S. border apprehensions. Meanwhile, in the past six years, there has been a more than tenfold increase in the number of U.S. asylum applications from these three countries.

The reasons Central American migrants have for emigrating are often complex. Poverty levels are high across the Northern Triangle. Drought has contributed to large-scale crop failure, undermining livelihoods and food security in these predominantly agricultural societies. The un has suggested that climate change is in part to blame. Meanwhile, weak governance contributes to pervasive corruption and violence in the absence of public services.

The most visible manifestation of survival migration from the Northern Triangle has been the migrant caravans that have periodically tried to enter the United States through Mexico. A survey by the International Organization for Migration of 800 people in the first caravans of 2019 revealed the complicated motives of the Central Americans who have participated in the northern exodus, with 45 percent of those polled indicating that they had moved mainly for better economic conditions, nine percent because of violence and insecurity, and 45 percent because of a combination of both. Sixty-eight percent also said that they had had to change their residence in their country of origin in the previous year due to violence or insecurity. As Washington has stepped up enforcement and detention, many Central American migrants have opted to surrender to the U.S. Border Patrol in order to claim asylum rather than try to sneak across the border- contributing to a growing backlog of claims at the U.S. border.

An Uneasy Welcome

Central America is not the only source of the Western Hemisphere’s migrants, and the United States is hardly their only destination. Unrest in Venezuela has also driven massive numbers of people from their homes to seek refuge in many other places in the region. Under Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule, the country has been beset by violence and economic upheaval since late 2015. Venezuela now has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Ninety percent of the population lives below the poverty line. There was close to 1.7 million percent hyperinflation in 2018.

The exodus ramped up in 2017, when the full weight of the economic crisis came to bear. Since then, up to four million Venezuelans-at least seven percent of the country’s population-have left. This is an unprecedented development in the region, arguably surpassed only by the period between 1979 and 1992, when over 25 percent of El Salvador’s population fled a civil war.

Venezuela’s neighbors have responded in vastly different ways. Colombia’s approach has been the most progressive. The country opened its doors to roughly 1.5 million Venezuelans and has granted them the right to work and to receive basic services. It has recognized Venezuelan immigration as a development opportunity, receiving a $31.5 million grant from the World Bank earlier this year, alongside additional concessional finance, to provide jobs and improved social services to the migrants and the communities that host them. But Colombia’s government refuses to call these Venezuelans refugees, since doing so might exacerbate a bureaucratic backlog in the asylum system and risk a political backlash in a country where anti-immigrant rhetoric is growing in the border regions.

Other countries have been less welcoming. At first, Peru opened its borders, allowing Venezuelans to apply for short-term stays or for asylum and, from January 2017 until December 2018, offering Venezuelan migrants temporary access to work, education, and banking services. But by the end of 2018, Peru suspended that practice amid concerns that it was creating an incentive for more Venezuelans to come. In 2017, Brazil began offering Venezuelan migrants two-year residency visas and gave all asylum seekers from Venezuela access to work permits and basic services. In 2018, however, the governor of Roraima State appealed to the Supreme Federal Court to close the border until the conditions for “humanitarian reception” were in place. (The court dismissed the case.) Brazil has also tried, with limited success, to carry out an internal relocation scheme, in which around 5,000 Venezuelans in the border area have been transferred to 17 other states across the country. For its part, Ecuador initially welcomed fleeing Venezuelans but eventually introduced stricter border controls in August 2018. In January, the country witnessed a xenophobic backlash after a Venezuelan migrant killed his pregnant Ecuadorian girlfriend; in the face of the resulting anger and violence, many Venezuelans left Ecuador for Colombia.

Meanwhile, international organizations have struggled to even define the crisis in South America, much less deal with it. Until this past spring, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had only vaguely noted that the region was experiencing a “migrant crisis.” But on May 21, under pressure from human right activists, the UNHCR released a statement suggesting that most Venezuelan migrants were actually refugees in need of international protection. The World Bank has characterized the Venezuelan migration as “mainly based on economic reasons but with the characteristics of a refugee situation in terms of the speed of influx and levels of vulnerability.”

And yet everyone dealing with the situation on the ground agrees that a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding. On the border in Cúcuta, Colombia, around 50,000 people cross the checkpoint each day at the Simón Bolívar International Bridge. They set out with suitcases, bags, and hand trolleys to collect food and basic provisions that cannot be easily found in Venezuela. They buy and sell in Cúcuta’s La Parada market or eat at the soup kitchens run by organizations affiliated with the World Food Program, which serve a total of 8,000 meals per day. Up to 3,000 of those who cross every day wind up staying in Colombia. Those with passports can regularize their status, access public services, and find work. By contrast, those without papers cannot get even the most basic entitlements.

Competition and a lack of adequate coordination among un agencies and nongovernmental organizations is palpable. For example, during my recent visit to the border, some organizations pushed for unrestricted cash assistance to Venezuelans, while others-among them, the Colombian government-strongly counseled that this would merely exacerbate existing tensions between migrants and locals. Several agencies complained that other agencies initiated schemes without consulting relevant partners, despite the existence of an inter-agency coordination platform.

There are, of course, some guiding lights. In beleaguered Cúcuta, a “one-stop shop” border point operated by un agencies and nongovernmental organizations offers emergency relief and guidance to those who most need it. Here, and at other points along the border, UNICEF provides vaccines to the youngest migrants. And a few reception centers offer overnight housing, but only on a temporary basis. Most migrants, however, rely on their kith and kin to survive.

Lessons from the Past

A new approach is needed to handle this situation-one that recognizes the contemporary realities of survival migration and relies on international cooperation rather than unilateralism. In 2016, Europe belatedly began to find solutions by strengthening international cooperation both among and beyond the 28 EU member states. The drop in Mediterranean crossings between 2016 and 2019 is due in part to improvements in the security situation in Syria. But the change has also come from strategic reforms aimed at strengthening internal and external cooperation.

In March 2016, the EU signed an agreement with Turkey, which during the crisis was the last place that millions of migrants passed through on their way to Europe. The EU offered Turkey around two billion euros of assistance in exchange for hosting and integrating refugees while limiting their outward movement. (Although criticized for making some migrant journeys even more dangerous, the deal has reduced Aegean Sea crossings for Greece and supported Turkey’s capacity and willingness to host 3.7 million refugees. Unfortunately, due to the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey, officials in Ankara have recently started resettling refugees in the Levant.) The EU also created an emergency assistance fund for Africa in late 2015 and dedicated more than four billion euros to support collaboration in the broad area of “migration and development” with African states. Agreements that the EU forged with countries such as Ethiopia and Jordan have created jobs, supported existing enterprises, and provided more sustainable opportunities for refugees and migrants in those countries. Europe’s approach has been far from perfect-that much is clear. But it is also undeniable that the crisis ended in part owing to policies that created sustainable development opportunities and removed some of the “push” factors that had caused the migrant surge. If U.S. policymakers are serious about developing more sustainable immigration policies, perhaps they ought to borrow European tactics, creating multilateral deals with countries in Latin America that aim to ensure the safety and economic opportunity of migrants in their countries of origin, transit, and asylum.

The Western Hemisphere could also look to its own past for inspiration. In 1984, the countries of the region issued the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which extended the definition of “refugee” to include people fleeing “massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” This definition aptly describes the circumstances of many of the region’s contemporary survival migrants. But until now, nearly all states have refrained from applying this extended definition to the plight of Central Americans or Venezuelans.

Policymakers could also draw lessons from the 1989 International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA)-which identified regional solutions for around two million displaced people across the hemisphere, more than half of whom were displaced across borders. CIREFCA is, in short, one of the most successful historical examples of cooperation on refugees anywhere in the world. The conference set standards for recognizing and responding to different categories of migration. And through CIREFCA, countries created sustainable sanctuaries closer to home for the region’s migrants.

The impetus behind the conference was just as dramatic as the migration crisis that is troubling the political landscape in the present day. By the end of the 1980s, after a decade of regional conflict that had produced around 160,000 casualties, there were millions of displaced people in Central America. Of these, around 150,000 were recognized as refugees, around 900,000 were displaced across borders but not regarded as refugees, and around 900,000 were considered internally displaced. CIREFCA aimed to remedy this problem as part of the region’s peace process at the end of the Cold War. The initiative for the conference came from the UN, working closely with the Contadora Group (Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela) and major donors such as the United States and the EU. As part of the process, the UNHCR and the UN Development Program established a joint secretariat, based in San José, Costa Rica.

The aim of CIREFCA was to address forced displacement through a development-based approach. Conference attendees called for the CIREFCA secretariat to implement 36 initial projects that would require $375 million over a three-year period. Most of the projects aimed to ensure that, rather than having to migrate long distances in search of security and opportunity, migrants could receive protection and achieve prosperity closer to home. For example, through CIREFCA, the Mexican government undertook the development of large parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, including Campeche and Quintana Roo, states that at the time hosted tens of thousands of Guatemalan refugees. The project created agricultural jobs and other opportunities for Guatemalan refugees to build sustainable lives in Mexico, while simultaneously supporting the development of relatively impoverished areas of the peninsula. A number of other CIREFCA projects encouraged self-reliance on the part of refugees, empowering them to access opportunities both at home and in neighboring countries. For example, 62,000 Nicaraguans, 45,000 Guatemalans, and 27,000 Salvadorans returned home because integrated development projects cropped up in their local communities, schemes aimed at improving employment, infrastructure, and social services.

In the end, CIREFCA is estimated to have channeled more than $422 million in additional resources to the region, most of it from the United States and the EU. But CIREFCA was not just a one-off pledging conference: it was an ambitious political undertaking that lasted from 1987 to 1995. It led to sustainable solutions even for those who were not officially refugees, using the term “externally displaced persons” to capture the needs of people in migration situations that the traditional terminology failed to describe. Ultimately, CIREFCA did more than just address a migration crisis: it laid the foundations for two decades of relative peace in Central America.

Anchors, Not Walls

What the Americas need today is a revival of the spirit of international cooperation that drove CIREFCA. The recently forged Global Compact on Refugees-endorsed at the UN General Assembly last year-is a step in the right direction. The agreement calls for responsibility sharing on refugee issues and encourages what could be termed “solidarity summits,” gatherings at which countries faced with major displacement challenges can present projects and proposals to the global donor community. Such summits would provide a platform for governments to agree on policies and norms around migrants, refugees, and those who fall in between. The summits would allow governments to pilot new approaches to forced displacement, creating mutually beneficial growth opportunities for both displaced populations and host communities.

The most obvious place to start would be a solidarity summit to address Venezuelan refugees and migrants, since there is a clear consensus in South America on the need for cooperation and an existing institutional mechanism through which to achieve it. Such a meeting could be hosted by the so-called Quito Group, 11 countries that signed a declaration in 2018 in the Ecuadorian capital calling for “substantially increased” resources to deal with the crisis. Whichever countries from the group that were prepared to move forward with the initiative could do so. The UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration would play a key role. (Eduardo Stein, the two organizations’ joint special representative for Venezuelan refugees and migrants, called for a “coherent, predictable, and harmonized regional response” in August.) Ideally, the summit would lead to a sustained process resembling the one employed by CIREFCA, run by an intergovernmental secretariat and backed by donor countries in the global North. The main purpose of the process would be twofold: to channel international funding into development projects that will benefit both migrants and host-country citizens and to commit to common regional standards for the reception and recognition of migrants across countries. Rich countries such as Canada and the United States have strong incentives to contribute, given the risk that an anti-immigrant backlash across Latin America may spread populist and even revolutionary politics.

The goal, above all, must be to expand some of the provisions traditionally available only to refugees to the survival migrants that are the face of today’s crisis. CIREFCA proved that such an approach can work, and its legacy is indisputably positive-the sustainable integration of thousands of refugees and other displaced populations. It is high time that the region embarked on a similar project, focused on building anchors rather than walls.