Canada must do more to tackle Central America’s refugee crisis

 
By Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Liisa L. North      Jul. 30, 2018

In the perfect storm of failed peace implementation, deportations of gang members, land grabbing by agribusiness, foreign investment in conflict-generating mining projects, ill-conceived trade agreements, and the geographic shift of the drug trade, the Northern Triangle countries have descended into brutal violence. These problems require international responses, and Canada must play its part.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen enters a marathon House Immigration Committee meeting on July 24 in Ottawa dealing with the uptick in asylum seekers coming to Canada in recent months. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

As repercussions from United States President Donald Trump’s inhumane family-separation policies continue to play out, Canadians should not pat ourselves on the back. It is only in recent weeks that our media and government have begun to pay attention to a crisis of violence that is years in the making in Central America’s “Northern Triangle:” El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, has sought roughly $40-million to keep shelters open for kids in Honduras, provide support for Central American children detained in Mexico, and otherwise deal with the political conditions and violence driving hundreds of thousands of women, children, and adolescents to flee their homes. Canada has offered just $2-million for these urgently needed programs, a paltry sum in comparison to the US$22.5-million in bilateral aid that it provided in 2016 to Honduras, a country with a repressive government.

Indeed, some Canadian policies—like Ottawa’s support for contentious, conflict-generating mining operations in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (until 2017, when its government banned metal mining) and Canada’s recognition of Honduras’s fraudulent 2017 presidential election—are fuelling the violence. Some Canadian mining corporations (which make up 90 per cent of foreign mining operations in Honduras) have been accused of contaminating agricultural land and drinking water and dispossessing people from their ancestral homes, though the companies claim otherwise.

Co-author Liisa L. North is a professor emerita of politics at York University. Photograph courtesy of Liisa North

In the 1980s, Canada did open its doors to Central American asylum seekers amid the region’s civil wars. But the numbers were small. About two million ran for their lives, either internally displaced or forced to flee across borders, with fewer than 22,000 people taken into Canada between 1982 and 1987. In 2017, Canada allocated a pitiful number of spots to Central Americans: out of 25,000 total spaces for resettled refugees, just 380 for all of the Americas.

The 1990s United Nations-monitored peace agreements in Central America were meant to end violence and stop refugee outflows, but they failed. The civil wars officially ended, but reforms designed to address the social and political conditions underpinning the wars and ensure lasting peace were never implemented, leaving violence and its causes festering.

Instead of promised agrarian reform to provide land and employment for rural families, thousands were expelled from the countryside as national and foreign agribusiness corporations pursued land and water grabs for export production. Free trade agreements (including one announced in person in Honduras by Stephen Harper following the 2009 military coup against a progressive government that had planned mining and agrarian reforms) have displaced domestic-food agriculture and forced large numbers of people across the Northern Triangle into urban squalor or, if “lucky,” work in exploitative foreign-owned maquiladora factories.

Meanwhile, members of gangs that had formed among refugee youth in the United States were deported, and left without education or services upon their return “home.”

These expelled gang members became the “skilled workers” for the illicit drug trade that shifted from Colombia to Central America and Mexico when the U.S.-financed $10-billion 15-year “war on drugs” ”succeeded” in closing down parts of Colombia’s drug economy.

Co-author Anne-Emanuelle Birn is a professor of critical development studies at the University of Toronto. Photograph courtesy of Anne-Emanuelle Birn

In the perfect storm of failed peace implementation, deportations of gang members, land grabbing by agribusiness, foreign investment in conflict-generating mining projects, ill-conceived trade agreements, the geographic shift of the drug trade—plus the ready availability of guns from U.S. arms merchants and steady market demand from drug users in the U.S. and Canada—the Northern Triangle countries descended into brutal violence.

These are deep-seated and interrelated problems that manifest in different ways in each setting. All require international responses, and Canada must play its part.

It should:

  • provide generous support for the UNHCR to enable it to adequately support the needs of women and children fleeing from violence;
  • reform tax and securities policies that favour the mining industry and ensure that the incoming Canadian ombudsperson for responsible enterprise is adequately funded and strictly mandated to call to account Canadian mining corporations that operate abroad (as well as other Canadian industries and projects, including hydroelectric megaprojects, housing and resort complexes, and garment-sector companies);
  • rethink its approach to trade agreements to enable protection of employment-generating sectors in low-income and vulnerable countries;
  • suspend its support for the repressive government of Honduras that has been persecuting critics of Canadian-owned firms;
  • provide resources to Canadian civil society organizations that assist victims of violence and human rights defenders and environmental activists;
  • suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States; and
  • welcome families and individuals who are fleeing violence and repression and provide resources for shelter space in major Canadian cities.

Anne-Emanuelle Birn is a professor of critical development studies at the University of Toronto and Liisa L. North is a professor emerita of politics at York University.