MEXICO CITY - A caravan of thousands of Central American migrants has left Honduras headed for the United States, fulfilling predictions that the pandemic would spur migration after months of lockdown due to the coronavirus in Central America.
Over 2,000 people pressed past officials on the Honduras/Guatemala border in chaotic scenes on Thursday and headed into Guatemala. Many of the men, women, and children on the move wore surgical masks and makeshift ones to cover their faces, a sign of the risks of leaving.
The latest exodus from Honduras – the first since lockdowns in the region began in March – mirrors the migrant caravans seen in recent years that have fuelled the anti-immigrant rhetoric and hard-line policies of United States President Donald Trump.
As the migrants marched, the Trump administration said it would cut the number of refugee admissions into the United States for the upcoming year even further.
The images of thousands of people headed to the border en masse helped him rally his base during the 2018 midterms, when he said the caravans were an “assault on the sovereignty of our country.” He deployed troops to the U.S.-Mexico border ostensibly to keep them out.
Now, with the presidential election weeks away, the new group of approaching migrants could be new fodder for Trump’s campaign. “It seems to us very strange, quite odd, that this caravan sets out on the eve of the elections in the United States. It’s a big coincidence,” commented Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, suggesting that there was more behind the procession of migrants than economic need.
“There are people who are talking about this as practically a favor to Trump, since it’s so few days from the election,” said Celia Medrano, a Central America migration researcher and former consul general of El Salvador in Washington, D.C.
“But we have to go beyond that conversation, because it hides the real motives of those who are leaving.”
Over the last six months, the closure of borders in Central America and across the region impeded many people’s efforts to leave, even as savings dwindled and jobs disappeared. After a lull of several months in which the number of migrants detained at the U.S. border was a fraction of what it was last year, migration picked up gradually over the summer, but it was mainly Mexicans, not Central Americans, who were trying to cross.
On Thursday, authorities at the Guatemala border with Mexico insisted that people in the new caravan would not be allowed through unless they presented proof that they were coronavirus-free. But Guatemalan officials in the city of Corinto filmed migrants at the border shouting “Let us pass!” before they pushed ahead, despite lines of soldiers and police.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said that all those in the caravan would be sent back to the Honduran border: “We will not allow people to violate our laws and put at risk the public health measures that we have worked hard to keep under control.”
The caravan is now heading to Guatemala’s border with Mexico, and eventually - if the previous ones are any indication - Mexico’s border with the United States. But Mexico may well stop the migrants, as it has done in the past. Soon after taking office at the end of 2018, Lopez Obrador took what many saw as a U-turn on his approach to migrants, militarizing efforts to detain and deport them after initially taking a more humane approach. The change came after Trump threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican goods if Mexico didn’t stem the flow of migrants.
Although Lopez Obrador said Friday morning that Mexico was “a peaceful country,” Mexican immigration officials were less welcoming. Witnessing the caravan’s progression, the country’s immigration agency released a statement referring to immigrants as a COVID-19 risk and indicating that any foreigners who threatened public health could be imprisoned for years.
But after months of lockdown, many people are too hard-pressed to heed these threats.
The pandemic is projected to have a severe and long-term impact on Latin America, where over 9 million people have already been infected. The World Bank projected that economic activity in the region “is expected to contract in 2020 by far more than it did during either the global financial crisis or the 1980s Latin America debt crisis.”
In Central America, many people were already earning less than minimum wage. In Honduras, over half of small and medium-sized businesses have closed, factories have stalled, and income from tourism has dried up, said Alejandro Kaffati, an economist at FOSDEH, a think tank.
By the end of the year, an estimated 70 % of the population will be in poverty, he said.
“The economic consequences brought about by COVID-19 and the restrictions the government has placed now and will in the future have given us the perfect ingredients for a humanitarian crisis,” Kaffati.
For much of the pandemic, people in Honduras could go outside only if they had special permission from their employer, or on a specific day indicated based on the last digits of their federal ID numbers. If they broke the rules, authorities could detain or fine them.
Previous caravans, which many migrants saw as cheaper and safer than paying smugglers to transport them through Mexico, had their risks. Authorities in Mexico used tear gas and rubber bullets to stop some. But many migrants made it to the United States, where a portion sought asylum.
Now that’s impossible. The United States has effectively shut down the asylum system based on a public health order that treats migrants as potential carriers of COVID-19. Since March, the U.S. has expelled the majority of the migrants detained at the southern border with Mexico. Nearly 9,000 of those were unaccompanied children.
Karla Rivas, the Central American coordinator of the Jesuit Migration Network, told VICE News: “People know about the dangers of the road, because they all have a family member, a friend, or a neighbor who has already tried to leave, but they’re trying because they’re desperate.”
Cover: Honduran migrants, part of a caravan heading to the U.S, are seen onboard a truck in Entre Rios, Guatemala, after crossing the border from Honduras, on October 1, 2020. Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images.