Day 6

Why a top refugee advocate travelled the route of the Central American migrant caravan

Next Tuesday will mark the one-year anniversary of the migrant caravans' arrival at the Mexico-U.S. border. Jan Egeland wanted to refocus attention on the reasons why so many Central Americans have fled their homes — so he decided to follow their path.

Nov. 13 marks one year since the caravan's arrival at the U.S.-Mexico border

A woman carries her son as she looks at people taking part in a gathering in support of the migrant caravan in San Diego, U.S., close to the border wall between the United States and Mexico, in Tijuana, Mexico on Dec. 10, 2018. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
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Tuesday will mark one year since a caravan of Central American migrants arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In September this year, Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, travelled the same 4,000 km route — from El Salvador to Mexico — as many of those migrants.

Egeland says the journey was an effort to refocus attention on why so many Central Americans leave their homes.

"They know of the militarization of the borders — the impossibility to reach the United States and Canada — and still, they say in this place, with zero hope of a future, we will try again and again," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Here is part of that conversation.

And these refugees, these people who have left their homes in El Salvador or Guatemala or Honduras for this grave uncertainty, what do you remember most about them? Who do you remember when you think about this journey that you took? 

It was horrific, really. I've travelled the world now for 40 years and I've seen most war zones of our generation, but I was taken aback by the stories of these people. 

Number one, it is not true that the people who are fleeing north towards the United States and Canada seek a better economic life, the American dream. They flee for their lives. 

One example: a single mother, I met her as she had finally arrived in southern Mexico with her 11-year-old son. This lady [made a living] from a small grocery store outside of San Pedro Sula in Honduras. 

All her profits went to pay, in extortion money, the local gang. Then her mother was dying from cancer. She had to close the shop for two months. The mother died. 

She reopened the shop and the gang came to her and said, "You missed two months, so we need those two months, plus this month, and if you don't pay by tomorrow, we will take your son — your 11-year-old son."

She didn't have that money, so that same night, she fled with the 11-year-old.

With the migrant caravan still more than a thousand kilometres from the U.S. border, Susan Ormiston looks at a day in the life of the migrants and finds out a little more about who is in their midst. 3:52

I just want to zoom out for a moment here and look at what is going wrong in these countries, what's happening in Central America? 

Many people think of it as a place where there were civil wars a generation ago, or two generations ago, and then those wars ended, so presumably things are better. Why is that not the case? 

There is a tremendous societal collapse in Central America, especially in [the] northern three countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, but Nicaragua is not much better. 

And it is beyond me, really, that North America hasn't woken up to that fact. There is no law and order. The corrupt police is in collusion with armed gangs in their extortion industry. 

In El Salvador alone, there are 60,000 men with guns organized in groups. I mean, [the] Norwegian Army is like 12,000 men. This is 60,000 and they live by preying on the civilian population. 11,000 people killed in three countries — small countries — last year alone.

When you look at the failures in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala and potentially in Nicaragua, who do you blame? Who's responsible for the breakdown in the society there?

Number one, the political and economic elites of these very countries. But I really find that [the] United States have their fingerprints all over this collapse as well. 

You don't have to be an expert on history to know how military juntas were propped up, funded. 

In recent times, there has been development assistance both from the United States and Canada to the area, but of late, the U.S. has cut aid to punish these countries from sending people north.

So a place where people have given up hope for a better future ... both closes the border and at the same time cuts aid to development, to education, to livelihoods creation. What kind of policy is that? It is beyond me and being counterproductive.

A migrant girl, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, is carried through a makeshift camp in Juchitan, Mexico, on Oct. 31, 2018. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

But for Canada, where there are communities from these countries in all of our provinces — this is our hemisphere — is Canada contributing enough to ameliorate the situation?

We're looking to Canada with some hope now. I'd ask for three things, really. 

Number one, you have to make it possible for, also, Central Americans to come and seek protection in Canada. 

The second one is we cannot give up trying to influence the United States; they have to change the policy. 

And the third thing is we need Canadian help in these countries. There [are] very little sources of aid to this part of the world.

How does what you saw this fall in Central America compare to the crises that are going on elsewhere in the world?

The violence that takes place on your American hemisphere, here in Central America, is on par with what I see in Syria and Iraq. 

The gruesome loss of the killings, of the torture, of the extortion, is on par with that.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.