Every individual has the right to seek asylum. A person should not be punished for entering a country ‘illegally’ if their life or freedom is under threat. (An asylum seeker is a person who has been forced to flee their home country due to dangerous conditions like war, famine, extreme climate change or fear of persecution.) The United States and Australia are both signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, meaning they agree with the definition of a ‘well founded fear of persecution’ granting the right to seek asylum.
Human migration has been happening all over the world since the beginning of time, not just for reasons of violence, but other factors including changing climate, unsupportive landscapes or insufficient food supply. When you think about how migration has been a part of human behaviour for generations, the framing of migrants as criminals is not only unjust but untrue, more often than not used solely by politicians to promote their own agendas.
You may have been keeping up to date with the ‘Migrant Caravan’ that’s travelled across Mexico to the United States border. Central American migrants, primarily from Honduras, but also Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador began their journey to the US over a month ago in Honduras, with the aim of crossing into San Diego through the Mexican border state of Tijuana.
Despite aid along the way, the journey to Tijuana was no simple one. The group was confronted with the physical perils of weather extremes; intense heat throughout Honduras, Guatemala and the South of Mexico, and freezing nights and mornings further North. Packed into trucks and open platform trailers meant the daunting prospect of falling when the vehicles were at high speeds. Not to mention the general discrimination and violence encountered along the way and having to pass through areas of Mexico that are notorious for cartel violence. Despite this, the group were met with rubber bullets and tear gas when a small number of them attempted to cross the border.
Having reached the border, a group of some 6,500 migrants, men, women, non-binary individuals and children as young as a few months old, await processing. The migrants’ future appears uncertain with claims that only about 30% will be accepted, if that, and that the process will take at least six months.
The ‘Migrant Caravan’ has been a topic of the US midterm elections, with Trump claiming that the caravan is full of ‘criminals’ and could be ‘terrorists’ and is threatening to close the border completely. Such fear tactics are a common theme each electoral cycle, where the idea of ‘invading’ migrants are used as a scapegoat.
Contrary to Trump’s claims, these people are escaping poverty and violence, with 80% of Honduran workers earning below the minimum wage, intensified by the recurring cycle of gang warfare, control and corruption. On top of that, Honduras has been subjected to intense and persisting drought, making it very difficult to make a living. The reality for a lot of these migrants is that returning home would make it nearly impossible to live a safe and fulfilling life.
Karen Martínez of Copán from Honduras, who was travelling with three children, said, “Sometimes we go along laughing, sometimes crying, but we keep on going.” (Associated Press in Irapuato, Mexico )
Of the group, women, children and members of the LGBTQI community are amongst the most vulnerable, facing forms of discrimination, abuse and exploitation at considerably higher levels than male migrants. Among the thousands travelling in the caravan, a group of about 100 LGBTQI individuals broke off from the main group to avoid the discrimination they faced from the other Central Americans. Along with being subjected to higher levels of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities and a higher risk of violence as a result of transphobia and homophobia (according to a 2013 study by the Government Accountability Office), LGBTQI individuals are also asked to ‘prove’ their sexuality to immigration officers. This is a difficult, if not impossible task, considering how gender and sexual expressions vary considerably across different cultural contexts and are in no way linear or easily ‘proven’ for many people. These realities make seeking asylum even more challenging for members of the LGBTQI community.
“We are not the people that he thinks we are. We just want to enter the US and work hard for our children.” Hilda, a Honduran woman travelling with her eight month old son.
Fortunately, state governments, organisations and Mexican citizens across the country have been helping the group by providing shelter, food and other amenities. ‘FM4 Paso Libre’, a migrant shelter located in the metropolitan zone of Guadalajara organised hosting the migrants in an auditorium when they passed through and their call for donations and volunteers was enthusiastically received by members of the community. Such a warm reception is hopeful and powerful as it shows migrants that their journey should be dignified, however the warm welcome wasn’t reciprocated further North.
“I’ll explain to you, that if my life, my integrity or my security seemed threatened I would not only kick down bars to cross, I would kick down an entire country. I remind you that Human Rights are universal, that in the Migration Law an irregular stay in a foreign country is not a crime and that Convention 51 of the declaration of Cartagena means we must provide migrants with international protection. Doesn’t the belief that 3,000 people will collapse the entire migration system of a state with more than 120 million inhabitants seem amusing? These people are not searching for the ‘American Dream’, rather they are escaping the ‘Central American Nightmare’.”- Missael Plascencia, a volunteer in Mexico.
Migrants resting in the Auditorio Benito Juárez, Guadalajara, photo @mccormick.megan
Australia is no exception when it comes to discriminating against migrants and refugees. We are the only country in the world that sends people seeking asylum to offshore, indefinite detention centres. Since the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970’s, denying entry to ‘boat people’ has been a divisive issue in Australian politics, resulting in harsh and persisting policies of deterrence. In both the United States and Australia, narratives of deviance and criminality are often pushed to the forefront to justify extreme policies, like Trump’s border wall or Manus Prison. These discourses work to position migrants and refugees as a threat to the national order, regardless of how vulnerable or desperate their situation may be. People in positions of power, like politicians, often strategically amplify these discourses to fit and justify their agendas of control, especially in politically sensitive times such as elections.
Migrants and refugees are demonised and dehumanised for wanting a safer and more fulfilling life. It is so important, now and always, for us to stand up against hate. Be aware of the facts. Don’t be fooled by claims of criminality and invasions. Fight fear and suspicion of the outsider. Seeking asylum is a human right. Humans have always migrated and everybody deserves a dignified migration to safety, fair and timely processing, economic and physical security where it can be offered and to not be separated from their families.
Here is an exert of poetry by Kurdish journalist, human rights activist, poet and filmmaker, Behrouz Boochani, who has been imprisoned on Manus Island detention centre for over five years:
Probably the life most worth living is a solitary one /
A quiet life, a lively existence, and a glorious one /
But what a bitter life that is /
Life is such a magnificent thing /
When a prisoner steps onto foreign territory and sees loneliness reflected on the fences of a forlorn prison /
He sees himself… the one who is alone /
The world with all its beauty and marvel comes crashing down over his head /
Perhaps the world stands still then /
And the prisoner must determine his destiny /
For more information about what it means to seek asylum visit this page.
Alice is a volunteer at the Victorian Women’s Trust and a student at the University of Melbourne where she is studying a Master of Global Media Communication. Alice is passionate about gender equality and believes it cannot not be achieved until the struggles of all kinds of women are heard. She is also passionate about pizza and her dog Scout (if you’re asking).