Why the Refugee Caravan Is So Big—and What We Need to Do About It

Why the Refugee Caravan Is So Big—and What We Need to Do About It

Why the Refugee Caravan Is So Big—and What We Need to Do About It

“Central America just couldn’t take it anymore.”


Central America couldn’t take it anymore.” That’s how Ruben Figueroa describes the October exodus of thousands of people from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala fleeing north. “After decades of US intervention, chronic poverty, corruption, and structural violence, Central America just couldn’t take it.”

Figueroa is in Mexico City after traveling up from the Mexico-Guatemala border with the caravan that is slowly making its way, mostly by foot, up through southern Mexico, even as a new group of refugees strives to catch up with it. By sending troops to the border and threatening to abolish birthright citizenship, Donald Trump has been generating headlines in his attempt to make political hay out of these desperate refugees.

Few people know the root causes of migration and the perils along the migrant trail like Figueroa. A leader of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement born and raised in southern Mexico, his job is to find missing migrants and unite families that have been split by forced displacement. He travels back and forth between villages in Honduras and Guatemala, where he contacts mothers attempting to locate loved ones, and Mexico, where their sons and daughters crossed over and were lost.

“We’ve seen this coming for a long time, but the people are ignored, and then one day it overflows,” Figueroa says. “And the governments respond with repression against people who know what it’s like to suffer, so the violence can’t stop them because they’re already survivors of violence.”

The migrants have many stories and many ways to describe their decision to pick up and leave, but almost all of them come down to the same thing. At one of the stops along the way, a young man carried around a big piece of cardboard with a handwritten message: “We migrate because of the humanitarian crisis in our country of Honduras, because we’re being governed by a heartless president who doesn’t feel the pain of a nation bathed in blood and full of poverty, where children are dying of malnutrition for lack of any public aid from those who govern.”

Although hundreds of people leave Honduras every day to go north, the number in this particular exodus is unprecedented. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that Mexican officials registered 7,233 people crossing the Rodolfo Robles border bridge from Guatemala on October 19 and 20, which they reached after leaving San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on October 12.

By far the majority are Hondurans. San Pedro Sula, an industrial city with few jobs and plenty of violent crime, was recently the murder capital of the world for two years running. With high unemployment, gangs, corruption, and ineffective law enforcement, the city spits out citizens on a daily basis, especially the young. Many other parts of Honduras are nearly as bad. Since the 2009 coup d’état, the country has been ruled by conservative governments and an elite determined to squeeze personal gain out of the nation’s resources. After the United States helped block a return to constitutional rule, the new leaders declared Honduras “Open for Business.” Today the country has the most extreme pro-corporate legislation in the region.

The priest and grassroots leader Ismael Morales writes in ALAI (the Latin American News Service), “The caravan is the explosion of a pressure cooker, which the Honduran government, in association with a handful of business and transnational elites, has been heating up for at least a decade.” He cites “a development model based on extractive industries and privatization and concession of public goods and services” as the key factor.

While migrants usually refer to gang violence as the reason for their decision to leave, state violence plays a big role, especially in Honduras. Looting that can’t be accomplished through changes in law and legislation is done at the point of a gun. The assassination of Berta Cáceres in March of 2016 and attacks like the recent armed eviction of water defenders in Tocoa generate constant fear. Last November, President Juan Orlando Hernández ran for reelection, which is prohibited under Honduran law. He lost, but then stole the election, again with US support. The political crisis and crackdown on protesters have further eroded rule of law.

Two days after the caravan started in San Pedro Sula, Juan, 33, joined it, along with his wife and children, 2 and 10. He’s a day laborer, but it’s been a long time since he’s had a job. He says that in his neighborhood, criminals kidnap children to force them to join gangs, while the authorities look the other way. His family is now deciding whether to stay in Mexico or move on. The caravan has snowballed since it left Honduras, and now a second caravan is entering Mexico.

Other groups have begun to leave El Salvador, one of them estimated at 2,000 people. Araceli says she left to get away from the violence. “We received threats, extortion. They wanted at least $50 month. But we have to pay food, water, light, rent.… We have three kids and they’re all boys, and boys suffer the most from the violence in El Salvador. There’s a 12-year-old boy who already goes around armed. We want to provide a better future for our sons so they can study and work.” She adds, “We’re all human beings, we have the same rights. We didn’t come here to rob anybody, we just want a future for our children.”

Ana tried to join the exodus from El Salvador, but got turned back at the Guatemala border by Salvadoran police. When asked why she wanted to migrate to the United States, she turned her face away and said in tears, “I have my daughter there, she was born there. She needs me.”

Guatemala, where the legacy of unpunished genocidal repression during its civil war haunts a profoundly racist and unequal system, has contributed more migrants to the exodus. “It’s an entire region in flight,” says Father Alejandro Solalinde, who runs the shelter Brothers and Sisters on the Road (Hermanos en el Camino) and serves as a liaison to Mexico’s president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America didn’t start overnight. Many have asked “why now?” and conspiracy theories abound. US Representative Matt Gaetz circulated a video of members of the caravan receiving cash and stated that George Soros paid Hondurans to start the exodus. It turns out the money was about 2 dollars in quetzals and the scene was not Honduras but Guatemala. One commentator took the claim about Soros further, arguing that the magnate aimed to start a “color revolution” against Trump.

In fact, the caravan was organized through social media in Honduras, initially planned as one of many such caravans that have left Central American in recent years. But this one quickly grew in size, stoked partly by opposition activists in Honduras, as well as by a Trump administration eager to play to its anti-immigrant base. For those joining the caravan, though, “it’s a question of survival,” says Enrique Vidal of Mesoamerican Voices, a human-rights organization that is monitoring the exodus. “We know the structural causes—criminal violence, gender violence, looting, expulsion of youth, extortion…it’s hard to imagine that someone pushed a button to generate this chain reaction.” Vidal did fact-finding and humanitarian assistance for the caravan along the border, and then accompanied it on its journey through Chiapas.

Figueroa has no doubt about the causes. “Those of us who have been part of this process for years can tell you exactly who organized these people to migrate—they’re named hunger and violence.” He argues, “It got big fast because the migrants know the barbarity they’ll face while traveling through Mexico.” They know that in a hostile environment, there’s safety in numbers.

That’s even more true for women. Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Mexico City–based Institute for women in Migration, reports, “Women and children, by being together in a caravan, feel much more protected. This was an opportunity, and that’s why so many families, women and children, came on.” She offers a tragic example of the cost of not having that kind of protection. “In Chiapas, a group of three women were trying to reach the caravan and they were robbed and raped before they got there.” It is widely estimated among experts that as many as 60 percent of women and girls are raped during migration, where more remote routes push them into the hands of organized crime or predatory police.

The initial statistics on the exodus counted 2,622 men, 2,234 women, 1,070 boys and adolescents and 1,037 girls and adolescents. International laws are clear about the priority of protecting children. That’s not happening. UNICEF reports that many children are sick and that government needs to do more to prioritize their needs and find alternatives to detention. The situation is almost as bad for families in the immigration station and the improvised detention center in Tapachula, in Chiapas near the border with Guatemala, where they are not allowed to leave and suffer from bad food, overcrowding, and heat, according to testimonies from inside.

Outside, the Mexican police have attacked, killing one young Honduran, Henry Adalid Díaz, with a rubber bullet and tear-gassing thousands. President Enrique Peña Nieto has opted to follow Washington and crack down, sporadically attacking, blocking, and refusing the caravan motor transportation. The care and protection mandated by law are frowned upon as encouragement. Massive deportations take place daily. In contrast, incoming president López Obrador welcomed the migrants in Chiapas and promised jobs. The Mexico City government has offered food and shelter, and organizations already plan to provide legal advice and information, as well as medical and psychological services. But the federal government refuses to issue humanitarian visas, which would allow people to circulate safely and make their plans.

There’s a ray of hope in the response of Mexican citizens throughout the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Residents bring food, clothes, and water. International and national groups of medics attend the migrants, as health problems increase due to fatigue, sickness, and injury. Although Mexican social media reflect a strong vein of xenophobia, migrants chant “Viva Mexico!” as townspeople show up with giant bags of sandwiches, or baseball caps and bars of soap, many crying as they speak to reporters about helping “our Central American brothers and sisters.”

After years of war and devastation, modern civilization agreed on norms that guarantee the basic rights of people seeking refuge and a safe place to work and raise families. Some would tear down that architecture of decency by stoking irrational fears and the opportunistic use of misfortune. The idea that families forced to flee their homes by violence and crushing poverty constitute a threat would be ludicrous if it weren’t lethal.

As the exodus moves slowly through southern Mexico, 1,500 people from all over the world are gathering in Mexico City for the World Social Forum on Migrations and the first-ever World Summit of Mothers of Missing Migrants, a space for building women’s critical leadership role in the movement. This year’s theme is “Migrate, Resist, Build and Transform.” In more than a hundred self-organized activities, migrants, human-rights activists, and progressive scholars will rethink the global role of migrants and refugees.

“Migrants are stripping the mask off regional politics and revealing the bad policies that we’re facing in Latin America,” Figueroa notes. Hundreds of migrant and refugee leaders from around the world have taken pain and disruption and forged from it a collective leadership and steely perseverance. The forum seeks to do the same on a social level. It’s part of what Figueroa calls “radical solidarity”—solidarity that goes beyond humanitarian assistance and shares responsibility for ending the vicious cycle of displacement, detention, and deportation and imagining freedom.

Correction: The text has been adjusted to reflect standard estimates of the percentage of women and girls who are raped during migration.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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