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The caravan of migrants: Honduran deja vu

Shihab Sarkar | November 09, 2018 00:00:00

HONDURAN CARAVAN : "Viewing in a broader perspective, mass migrations have been a recurring phenomenon along the passage of history."

The Honduran caravan, one of the longest migrant marches overland in recent times, plays out similar spectacles of the 20th and 21st centuries in mind. They include the marches that crossed thousands of miles in African deserts to flee drought in their countries in the 1980s. Almost in the same period, the Vietnamese boat people set sail for safe shelter in the United States, Australia, Canada and some European countries (1975-1995) after the end of the Vietnam War. The most recent such migrations involved people from the strife-torn Middle East and North Africa. The destination, invariably, was Europe. The Sub-continent witnessed mass migrations of panicked religious minorities to and from the newly created states of India and Pakistan in 1947-`48. Those were followed by a brief spell of displacement of over 10 million people who fled genocide in their native land of Bangladesh into the neighbouring India. And since August 25, 2017, Bangladesh has been grappling with more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees, who fled to the country in the face of brutal persecution in their homeland of Myanmar. Viewing in a broader perspective, mass migrations have been a recurring phenomenon along the passage of history.

The roots of the Honduran migrants' caravan, however, lie elsewhere. As has been happening in the poorer Latin American, especially the Central American countries, the mass migration, or caravan, attempts have largely been prompted by a desperate bid to flee poverty and uncertainties back at home. The logic may have been like this -- if the Cubans and the Mexicans, and also isolated groups of Hondurans, can enter America without documents, then why they should be left behind. The Honduran caravan is different on also another count. It has direct implications for the USA, especially for the administration of President Donald Trump. As the Hondurans after marching hundreds of miles towards an elusive destination draw closer to the US-Mexico border points, the caravan saga gets complicated. It's mainly because the US neighbour of Mexico has now been handed down an opportunity to give a befitting reply to the crass threats of walling off the US-Mexico border by the superpower.

The nightmare of a region-based migrant exodus, though not termed a humanitarian crisis, is now unfolding in Central America. It began humbly in the form of a 'long march' by a group of 700 migrants, 80 per cent of them Hondurans, towards the US border with Mexico on March 25, 2018. The Hondurans were fleeing their country on being hit by poverty, rising unemployment, instability and many other scourges. With the over 4000 migrants-strong caravan now well inside Mexico, hundreds of them are getting impatient to reach the border and sneak through it. The caravan's resolve to dodge the stringent US border patrol is, at least for now, unflinching; but President Trump's strongly-worded threat to resist the Honduran migrants from storming into the US had already created a fraught situation in the region. It only kept intensifying.

The Mexican government, constantly being intimidated and maligned by President Trump since his coming to power, has visibly been thrown into discomfort lately. A few embarrassing developments have taken place on the Mexican side of the border. At the very start of the caravan, the Mexican president had offered shelter facilities and other amenities to the Honduran migrants who would not be able to cross the border into the US at the moment. But those promises seem to be losing steam. Thus, with the early enthusiasm petering off and the migrants' dreams wilting, many Hondurans have started showing signs of disillusionment. The grim turn of the event is blamed by many caravan participants on joining of the march by over 1,000 Salvadorians when the Hondurans were marching across Guatemala. Latest news reports show scores of Guatemalans also in droves trekking through different mountainous routes to reach the US border. Experts on the region feel amazed, as Guatemala is recognised as the richest of the 8 Central American countries. As they view it, the lure of the American El Dorado is irresistible to the world's venturesome poor.

The ground reality for now is the ambitious Honduran caravan comprising more than 4,000 migration-hopefuls has started to read the signs of a deadlock in their originally ambitious project. The caravan now headed for the US border-points is apprehended to spiral out of control. Murky developments have begun to surface. Last week, a Mexican governor refused to provide bus services to the migrants to take them to the capital Mexico City. He has cited a lot of reasons: the Mexican capital is already overcrowded, and it is afflicted by paucity of drinking water and lack of many other civic amenities. A lot of the caravan men and women have, however, refused to go to Mexico City. What they want is direct transportation to the Mexico-US borders. After showing generosity in playing host to the exhausted and bedraggled Hondurans, the Mexican government now visibly finds itself in the soup. That the central administration and those at the provincial level feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of temporary Honduran guests needs no elaboration.

Meanwhile, prior to the recent US mid-term election, President Donald Trump's diatribes against the Democrats were at play in full swing. The president accused the Democratic Party of instigating the Honduran migrants to cross the border into the USA. To the Democrats, the charge came as a bolt from the blue. Nonplussed and confused, they found it wise to keep silent on the issue and, instead, focus on the critical domestic issues like healthcare. The United Nations, the regional economic blocs and international migrant rights protection platforms have yet to noticeably react to the caravan's march. It is only recently that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has said the agency has been monitoring the Central American caravans of US-bound migrants. Portents of troubled times are there. With the Honduran caravan managing to trickle somehow into the US mainland, migrants from Central American countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador and those from Venezuela in Latin America might follow suit. If the number of these migrants swells in the coming days and assumes the proportions of a threat to the Trump administration, the whole episode might snowball into a regional crisis.

Despite being one of poorest nations in whole Latin America and the second poorest in Central America, Honduras has an impressive report card. Many poorer countries covet such a performance. A country covering 112,090 sq km, it has a population of 9.265 million (2017). In terms of territorial size, Honduras is similar to Bangladesh, which has an area of 147,610 sq km. But Bangladesh outdoes it in population with the volume coming to 161.8 million people as in 2017. Honduras has been recognised as a low middle-income country, with per capita income at US$ 600. Although chiefly dependent on export of agri-products, the once-famed coffee being one of them, it has reserves of minerals like gold, silver, zinc and lead cadmium. Its natural beauty and diverse wildlife attracts overseas tourists round the year. Given these tolerably comfortable data, the desperate nature of a massive caravan of migrants from the country seems intriguing. Regional watchers blame it on the growing poverty affecting 70 per cent of the people, as well as persisting political unrest and violence.

Despite its mixed performance in economy, especially in poverty alleviation, Bangladesh appears to have come a long way from the volatile points -- when people start thinking of becoming migrants. Credit for people not choosing mass migration, thus, goes to a nearly unbroken socio-economic stability. Moreover, the nation's growing political maturity cannot be played down. The 5-yearly poll-time heating up of politics notwithstanding, the fact of its democracy graduating from a shaky stage to a fledgling one also deserves to be in perspective.


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