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World Refugee Day 2019: Reflections from Mexico to Montreal

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Article
June 20, 2019

On World Refugee Day 2019, we stand with all people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes, regardless of the official labels that may have been assigned to them– refugee, economic migrant, asylum seeker, claimant, or otherwise.

In 2019, we are seeing the highest number of displaced people recorded since World War II. Earlier this week, the UNHCR announced that the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes has reached 70.8 million, or one in every 108 people worldwide. This includes 25.9 million refugees, 41.3 million internally displaced people and 3.5 million asylum seekers. And these are conservative estimates. 13.6 million people were newly displaced in 2018 alone.

Yet the rising number of displaced people stands in contrast to a dramatic drop in the number of resettlement places offered in safe countries. From 2016 to 2017, the number of places decreased by almost half, dropping from 189,000 to 103,000. In 2018, it dipped further to just 92,000 places, which amounts to just over one tenth of a percent of the number of displaced people.

At the same time, we are seeing the externalization of borders by states, policies that prioritize deterrence over protection, and an increasing criminalization of the act of fleeing for one’s life to seek safety, as well as of the individuals and organizations providing protection to migrants.

Much of the rhetoric we hear around migration, whether from politicians, the media or everyday citizens, exudes a fear of “the other;” a sense that migrants are coming to take our jobs, use our resources or cause us harm. We see the invoking of “liquid” language when talking about migrants. They are coming in “waves” or “tides,” “flowing in from all sides,” “draining resources.” In May, an editorial in the Globe and Mail suggested that to solve the immigration problem in Canada, the solution is to “plug the leaks.” We hear talk of the deserving vs. undeserving refugees, the “genuine” and the “bogus” claims.

In 2019, SCSC is shedding light on the crisis of forced displacement on our own continent, raising awareness of the forced migration we are seeing from Northern Central America into Mexico, and from around the world into Canada, and the interconnectedness between these two phenomena.  

Under an emerging initiative called Common Threads, in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières Urban Spaces, SCSC has met with people forced to flee and the individuals and organizations offering them services and protection from the Guatemalan-Mexican border to the U.S. Canadian border. From the Río Suchiate to Roxham Road, several trends have become increasingly clear:

  • The existence of safe or legal pathways to refuge on this continent are extremely limited.
  • In the absence of these pathways, people fleeing home endure acute risks and dangers (often as severe as those they are fleeing) by taking irregular routes to safety and are then criminalized for doing so.
  • There is no one single profile of a “migrant.” They are diverse individuals who have left their homes for a multiplicity of reasons– reasons that often do not fit neatly into immigration categories. They are young, old, men, women, children, teenagers, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, Indigenous, among other identities. They are often fleeing a confluence of gang violence, domestic violence, climate-related events, extreme poverty, corruption, and/or general deprivations of human rights, rather than one single driver. Despite being unable to return home, most will never have access to formal protections.
  • Civil society organizations and ordinary citizens, often with scarce resources, are stepping up to provide protection and access to services to migrants. These same individuals face increasing attacks and threats by both criminal groups and states.

The picture of forced migration around the world, and in North America is seemingly a grim one.

So what can we do about this? How can we act, and not just react?

We invite everyone to join us in three actions in particular:

  1. Sharing stories. Together, we can change the narrative. We can counter the rhetoric of othering, and dehumanizing language by focusing on the human stories beneath the numbers.
  2. Centering the voices of people forced to flee. We can ask migrants what they think– about their hopes and dreams, and what they want for their countries.
  3. Reaching out. In the towns and cities where we live, migrants are all around us. We can welcome them into our communities, learn from them, and celebrate our commonalities and our differences.

Here, I’ll share a few snapshots of our activities in these areas: documenting stories of young migrants from Honduras while seeking asylum in Mexico, participating in city-wide celebrations of diversity, and hosting Welcome Sessions for newly arrived asylum seekers to Montreal.

Stories

In March, I traveled to La 72 Home and Refuge, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, a small town at Mexico’s southeastern border. There, I met Sofia and Sara, 12 and 14 years old respectively.

*Sofia, left, and *Sara, right . Photo by the author. 

“My dream,” Sofia told me, “is for Honduras to become a dignified place to live, free from violence, gangs, unemployment.”

Sara followed. “It hurts me to see my country destroyed, to see people in the street, who have nothing. Whenever I pass an old woman in the street and no one stops, I always stop, and give her 20 or 100 pesos ($1 or 6 CAD) even if that’s all I have. But I know that’s not enough. My dream is to get to the United States so I can study and one day become the President. The first thing I would do is to figure out how to send food to the poor people in Honduras.”

Sofia again: “It’s not easy for us to leave our country. We leave our families, we leave our friends, our homes. All we ask is that you step into our shoes before passing judgment. This could happen to anyone. Today it is Honduras that is in a critical, dangerous position. Tomorrow, it could happen to any other country. We are not bad people, we are not criminals. We also have hearts and dreams. We are all human beings.”

In addition to Sofia and Sara, I met countless other young people in migrant shelters at Mexico’s southern border and in Mexico City– young people acutely aware of the injustices they and their family members are enduring. They are migrating not only to escape violence, but also in the hopes of one day bringing peace to their homelands. If given the chance, they will be part of the solutions to the violence and corruption plaguing their countries, ultimately quelling the drivers of forced migration.

Elevating Voices

On a chilly day in early May, SCSC participated in Cuisine Ta Ville, a city-wide celebration of the rich diversity of migrants that make up the social fabric of Montreal. We presented Narratives of Migration: From Mexico to Montreal, in collaboration with MSF Urban Spaces, where we invited experts to speak about the mental and physical health impacts of migration and discussed the potential for cities to be positive actors in welcoming people forced to flee. Key to the discussion, were Marco and Santiago, two gay men in their twenties, both of whom had recently fled Honduras.

Santiago speaking with Ana Sofia Hibon, SCSC 2017 Fellow and former volunteer at La 72 Home and Refuge. Photo by the author.

Santiago explained to the assembled crowd how he left Honduras the first time in 2016, fleeing gang-related violence. He was 25. After riding La Bestia, the high speed cargo train that runs throughout Mexico, he made it to the U.S., but was promptly detained by immigration authorities in Texas and sent to a detention centre. Every 15 days, he was placed in shackles and shuffled between detention centres. After a few months in detention, with no end in sight, he decided that he would prefer to risk death in Honduras than continue to endure that life. He requested a deportation to Honduras. After a few months back home, which he spent hiding in a friend’s basement, Santiago fled again, but this time, decided to try to claim asylum in Mexico. After an initial rejection, he immediately appealed his claim. One year and three months later, with still no response from the asylum agency, Santiago left La 72 shelter in Southern Mexico to try to start a life in Mexico City, albeit in the shadows. But soon after settling, Santiago was assaulted on the street, and received violent threats from gang members due to his sexual orientation. Once again, Santiago went into hiding. Without any protected status in Mexico, Santiago had no recourse for justice. Before long, a local migrant-serving organization referred him to the UNHCR, which referred his case to the Canadian government and in November 2018, Santiago arrived in Ottawa, resettled as a refugee.

Marco, having fled Honduras around the same time due to persecution for his sexuality, also endured a limbo period of over a year in various migrant shelters in Mexico, where he faced violence and threats, not unlike those he was fleeing in Honduras. Marco was resettled to Sherbrooke, Quebec in January 2018.

Marco addressing Montrealers at Cuisine Ta Ville . Photo by the author.

In many ways, Santiago’s and Marco’s stories are similar to those of the hundreds of thousands of other Central Americans fleeing their homes in search of safety in Mexico, the U.S. or Canada: the mix of poverty, violence and death threats that force them to leave, the seemingly unceasing violence along the route, the constant fear of being detained or deported by police or of being kidnapped or assaulted en route, and of course the series of tough choices and emotional anguish along the way.

Yet Marco and Santiago’s stories are also the exceptions. They are some of the few from the region who have found refuge in a safe country. In 2017, just 25 people from Northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) were resettled as refugees in Canada. In 2018, Santiago and Marco were two of 50 from the region to be resettled.

Reaching Out

The global crises of forced displacement are never too far from home. In the case of Montreal, and in many other cities around the world, the “field” is in our own backyard.

Volunteers and asylum seekers conversing at the Atwater Library. Photo by the author.

This Spring, SCSC and MSF Urban Spaces partnered with the Atwater Library and Computer Centre in downtown Montreal to welcome newly arrived asylum seekers to Montreal. Every Tuesday evening, volunteers invite individuals and families staying at the YMCA Residence for Asylum Seekers next door to the library for an hour of conversations about life in Montreal–  the endless array of free city-wide festival in the city, the ins and outs of different neighbourhoods, where to find language classes and cultural centres, etc. While the adults converse, the children read books, colour and play with the volunteers.

Volunteer, Kristel, with asylum seekers at the Atwater Library.

Since the end of April, we have held seven sessions, welcoming over 120 individuals, all of whom have arrived within just a few weeks. Many of them have crossed from the U.S. at Roxham Road. They have come from Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, El Salvador, Nigeria, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Angola, South Sudan, Chad, Senegal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Palestine, Iran and Lebanon. Over 35 volunteers have participated, ranging in age from 12 to 56, a mix of long-time Montrealers and newcomers themselves, with everyone hailing from different neighbourhoods in the city.

One volunteer shared that “it was a heartwarming experience to connect with people from different backgrounds. I gained a new perspective on issues I never fully understood or could relate to.”

To join us as a volunteer, fill out our sign-up form here.

Cities –both municipal governments and local residents– have a critical role to play as positive change-makers in the issue of forced displacement, ensuring safe passage, and fostering integration and inclusion.

On this day, as on every other, we recognize the common humanity that we all share, beyond labels and beyond borders, and call for the equal recognition of our rights to safety, security and protection.

*Names have been changed