Unhappy International Migrants Day

Dec. 18 was International Migrants Day, an occasion established by the United Nations in conjunction with the approval, on that date in 1990, of the International Convention on the Protection of all Migrant Workers and Their Families.  

How has this important anniversary been celebrated?

A video shows abusive treatment of migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa.  Migrants, who arrive by the thousands in Lampedusa fleeing war and insecurity in Africa and also recently in Syria, are shown being stripped naked and hosed down by authorities. This year hundreds of migrants and refugees drowned in the Mediterranean when rickety boats in which they are traveling have foundered or capsized.

The European Union jumped on Italy, denouncing the abuse of the Lampedusa migrants. This righteous indignation would be more credible if it were not for the fact that none of the larger and wealthier states have signed the International Convention on Migrant Workers. Not France, not Britain, not Germany, not Italy and not the United States.

But Mexico is a signatory, yet horrible crimes against migrants are committed there on a daily basis, in recent years against Central American migrants traveling the length of Mexico to get to the United States.

A new report by the Latin America Working Group in Washington documents what is happening to citizens of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who make this journey.  First-hand testimony shows how these migrants are preyed upon by both criminal gangs and corrupt police and immigration officials as they ride on freight trains headed from southern Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The situation is deteriorating very quickly, because drug cartels such as the Zetas have now begun muscling in on the former low-level, cottage industry of “coyotes” who have, for generations, guided migrants over the dangerous border. Coyotes are being killed or forced to work for the cartels, who in turn kidnap thousands of migrants and force them to hand over the phone numbers of their relatives, including people in the United States. These relatives are extorted for thousands of dollars with the threat that if they don’t pay up, their loved ones will be killed. Migrants talked about being sold to the cartels by corrupt police who were supposed to rescue them, about rapes, beatings, murders, torture and human trafficking for forced prostitution and slave labor. The precarious situation of immigrants in Mexico without papers makes this possible.  

Migrants are helped by a courageous network of migrant shelters, many set up by Roman Catholic clergy, who are themselves subjected to more and more abuse by gangsters and corrupt police.  In 2011, the Mexican Congress passed legislation designed to protect migrants, but the president at the time, Felipe Calderon, did not enforce it. Whether the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, will do so remains to be seen.  But conditions of both poverty and violence are so dire in Central America that the migrants keep coming.

There are many protests about this situation in Mexico, including a caravan of women who traveled all over Mexico to publicize the disappearance of Central American migrants, and published a statement on Dec. 19.  It reads in part:

“We Central American mothers demand justice from the government of Mexico:
That they account for the whereabouts of our “disappeared” sons and relatives.
That Mexico commit to implement the treaties and conventions it has signed.
Suppression of visas to cross Mexican territory. [so that Central American migrants will not be harassed by Mexican immigration authorities].
Recompense for the emotional damage caused to the families, with an indemnity for each deceased migrant who has been found.
With this, we say that Mexico at present has been turned into a holocaust for migrants.”

And what about the United States of America? Congress has shut down for the year 2013, without doing a single thing about the immigration crisis.  And although the Obama administration has granted special relief to some categories of undocumented workers, the vast majority have received none.  More and more labor, religious and political leaders – now including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. – are now demanding that the administration suspend most deportations until a legislative solution can be found.

Unless and until there is a safe and legal mechanism for migrants to travel, work and rejoin their families in the United States, they will continue to be brutally oppressed by gangsters and corrupt authorities. That is another reason to push for immigration reform with legalization for all.

Clearly, people in Central America should not have to leave home and family in order to survive. Immigrant rights advocates say it is vital to press our government to change its foreign and international trade policies to allow poorer countries to breathe (no more NAFTAs), and to stop abetting crooked elections like the one just finished in Honduras, which bring to power corporate-friendly governments that starve and repress their own people.

Photo: Central American migrants ride the rails in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Peter Haden/Wikimedia Commons


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.