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Plight of Northern Triangle asylum-seekers highlights the failure of States to properly adhere to th

What started as a convoy of 160 people fleeing the "murder capital of the world" has now become a group of an estimated 7,200 men, women and children heading towards the U.S. in a desperate bid for asylum. However, despite their legitimate reasons for fleeing their country in search of safety, Trump has sent 5,200 troops to apprehend them at the border.


On 12th October 2018, a group of Hondurans decided to leave their hometown of San Pedro Sula, once dubbed the "world's most dangerous city", and began the long and perilous journey North towards the U.S/Mexican border to seek asylum. Along the way, they were joined by thousands of people, mainly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, all of whom are fleeing dire poverty, violence and instability.

Migration route from Honduras - image via Business Insider

These Northern Triangle states have consistently ranked as some of the most dangerous countries in the world. This is down to a number of factors, including gang violence, lack of social infrastructure, perennial political instability and corruption, and the drugs trade. There have been huge efforts to stabilize these countries, with the United States pumping billions into various schemes such as A4P and the MCC. However, crime rates remain ridiculously high, with one study by the Wilson Centre revealing that up to 95% of crimes go unpunished. Not only are the risks of being punished low, but the rewards are huge - a recent report by the human rights group, WOLA, reveals that 90% of documented cocaine flowing into the United States passes through the region.

Gangs, which include transnational gangs, or "maras", such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18), not only traffick drugs but also people. They frequently kidnap civilians for extortion and run protection rackets. A 2015 investigation by Honduran newspaper, La Prensa, found that Salvadorans and Hondurans pay an estimated $390 million, $200 million, and $61 million, respectively, in annual extortion fees to organized crime groups. If civilians do not pay these groups, they run the risk of being killed.

With all of these terrible dangers, coupled with crippling poverty, is it any wonder that thousands have decided to flee?


Both Guatemala and El Salvador experienced devastating civil wars for much of the late 20th century. In Guatemala, a civil war raged from 1960-1996, killing an estimated 200,00 civilians, and in El Salvador, fighting between the government and leftist militia left 75,000 dead. The neighboring state of Honduras was badly affected by the regional violence and was also used as a base for the U.S.-backed Contras, a right-wing rebel group fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government during the 1980's.

These prolonged conflicts severely curbed the development of these countries, restricting its infrastructural growth and economic stability. It has also affected generations of civilians, leaving thousands of demobilized and unemployed men with easy access to weapons. This has led to the rampant gang culture we see today.

The caravan, pictured with Honduras flag - image via the BBC


There have been concerted efforts over the years by the United States to stabilize the Northern Triangle, but with little success.

Back in the early 2000's, George W.Bush introduced the 'Millenium Challenge Cooporation', a scheme which pumped millions into Honduras, Nicaragu and El Salvador. Despite this, thousands of migrants tried to enter the U.S. and in response, Bush introduced 'Operation Streamline' a "zero tolerance" policy under which all migrants found illegally crossing the border would be arrested and deported. He also created the 'Merida Initiative', a security package comprising the Northern Triangle states, with the aim of stopping migrants from reaching the U.S.

When Barack Obama came to power, he maintained the general border strategies of his predecessor, with a few alterations: He took Mexico out of the Merida group and created the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Over a $1 billion has been invested into CARSI to bolster the region's law enforcement, narcotics and justice systems. In 2016, he ordered the rounding up and deportation of thousands of failed asylum seekers. He also promoted the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P) another multi-billion dollar program by Northern Triangle governments and the Inter-American Development Bank.

When Trump became president, he continued to endorse A4P but introduced significantly harsher immigration policies which included the revoking of temporary protected status (TPS). This will affect nearly 350,000 people from Northern Triangle countries who will lose their right to legally live and work in the U.S.. Trump also introduced his widely criticized, and thankfully discontinued, policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border.

In the past few weeks, the journey of the migrant caravan from Honduras has quickly become a media sensation, sparking a series of reactionary tweets from Donald Trump in which he uses words like "onslaught", "assault" and "invasion". Trumps defends his anti-immigration stance with the unsubstantiated claim that apparently the group has been infiltrated by "gang members" and "criminals", and even "unknown Middle Easterners"!

Despite fierce criticism for his, at worst, racist, and at best, severely prejudiced remarks, Trump remains steadfast in his "belief". On October 29th, Trump deployed 5,200 troops to the Southern border to prevent the caravan from reaching the United States.

Yesterday, he was challenged at a press conference over his Tweets by CNN reporter, Jim Acosta. Trump refused to engage with Acosta, calling him a "rude, terrible person"


“We’re going to have tents, they’re going to be very nice, and they’re going to wait, and if they don’t get asylum, they get out. And very few people, they don’t actually, if you wanna wait they don’t usually get asylum, you know that."

These were words spoken by Trump in an interview with Fox News only a few days ago. U.S. troops are now positioned at the U.S./Mexican border awaiting the approaching caravan. The people in the caravan will be detained and kept in a makeshift camp while their asylum applications are processed.

"Despite the fact detention and processing at the border clearly flouts international asylum law, it is common practice - just look at Europe's third country deal with Turkey!"

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the U.S. has a legal obligation to accept and process all asylum applications. However, statistics show that the chances of gaining asylum to the United States are very slim. Looking back to the previous migrant caravan, which made its way to the U.S. in April 2018 and comprised just 1,500 people, only 401 applied for asylum, and of those, 374 passed the 'credible fear test'. The credible fear test determines whether the applicant qualifies for an asylum hearing. Despite Republican Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, dubbing the process an "easy ticket to illegal entry to the United States", the credible fear test is stringent and only the first in a series of hurdles applicants must jump over to gain refugee status. In fact, statistics show that the percentage of applicants granted asylum is decreasing, with a recent report by TRAC showing that 60% of all applicants were denied asylum in 2017.

'Immigration Court Asylum Decisions' (in the U.S.) - graph taken from TRAC immigration report analysis


The United States' border policy directly contravenes the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that all asylum seekers have the right “to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution" (Article 14). Despite the fact detention and processing at the border clearly flouts this law, it is common practice - just look at Europe's third country deal with Turkey!

This tells us that the current asylum-seeking system is broken. Northern Triangle asylum seekers are being denied access to the United States despite overwhelming evidence of reasonable grounds for claiming asylum - a recent report by the UNHCR shows that over 80 percent of women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico who were screened on arrival at the U.S. border “were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.” This failure to process and grant asylum quickly, efficiently and fairly is a global problem.

In Europe, for example, the rate of successful asylum applications varies hugely from state to state. This tells us that asylum law is not being consistently implemented across all countries. Even allowing for population density, we can see that Sweden (76% acceptance), for example, has a far more compassionate interpretation of asylum law than, say, Hungary (9.4% acceptance).

European decisions on asylum applications (2014) - image via The Economist

A lot of the problem lies with the fact that the granting of asylum remains at the discretion of a judge or interviewer and the burden of proof falls on the asylum applicant, who must provide evidence of "persecution", as specified in the UN Refugee Convention. Not only does this mean applicants must recall possibly traumatic events as testimony, but there is often no way of verifying their story. This means the decision falls on the judge to decide whether they believe the applicant or not. Not only is this highly stressful for the asylum seeker, but it's an extremely unreliable process. Decisions made by the judge can take months, sometimes years to be finalized, whilst the asylum seeker is forced to live in limbo, legally unable to work and reliant on the often meagre benefits provided by the state - for example, a UK asylum seeker must survive on just £36.95 a week.


The 1951 Refugee Convention itself has a number of flaws, most notably the fact that it is persecution-based (for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion). This excludes large swathes of people who should be offered protection, including environmentally displaced peoples and people who have no choice but to leave their country due to abject poverty, or sustained and indiscriminate violence. Technically, these cases do not count as direct 'persecution' and would therefore not meet the United Nation's persecution-based criteria.

Historically, this made a lot of sense back when the convention was first established in post-war Europe, soon after the horrors of the Holocaust. However, our global, political, social and cultural landscape has changed dramatically since then, and maybe its time our international asylum law should be updated to reflect this change.

Even if you believe the Refugee Convention is fit for purpose, clearly there are still huge variations in its application. This begs the question: how can it be enforced properly? Although the Convention is "legally binding" there is no body that monitors compliance. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has supervisory responsibilities, but cannot enforce the Convention, and there is no formal mechanism for individuals to file complaints. Even if a complaint was filed (which it never has been!), the only way of physically condemning the state responsible would be to levy international sanctions against them, and again, no nation has ever done this. Aside from this, the only real consequences of non-compliance would be verbal condemnation by the UN and public shaming in the press - all pretty flimsy measures when you consider the number of people whose lives hang in the balance.

As the migrant caravan slowly makes its way towards the U.S. border, now is the perfect time to confront these issues and ask ourselves - how do we fix them?

Man holding child at the border - image via SFGate

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