The flight of the children

The arrival of tens of thousands of refugee children into the United States from Central America is the consequence of US involvement in Latin America over the years.  These children, says Jeremy Seabrook, are the vanguard of those who, 'voting with their feet', threaten to undermine demarcations between privilege and poverty even when these are reinforced by barbed wires, dogs, military guards, walls and watchtowers.

WHEN children flee their country, this suggests something more than a lack of confidence in the future of their native land; and when such lands have been ravaged by the country in which they seek asylum, it is scarcely to be expected that these uninvited guests will be welcomed by a reluctant 'host'.

The recent arrival of tens of thousands of refugee children from Central America who have crossed the southern border of the US prompted Obama to request $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with an unprecedented situation. Between October 2013 and June 2014, 52,000 unaccompanied minors arrived from Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Much rhetoric has been expended on the scandal of lone children being sent to seek sanctuary in the United States; less upon scrutiny of the violence and poverty that have driven them to this desperate course of action. The question is how to 'warehouse', accommodate or dispose of these juveniles, and not what horrors prompted their loved ones to permit or encourage them to go off into the unknown. The risks they incur, although considerable, are less than those to which they would be exposed if they remained in what ought to be 'home'.

In this sad situation, the 'hawks' would speed up the deportation process, while even the 'doves' would abate some of the protection to unaccompanied minors afforded by the human trafficking act of 2008. It would be difficult to identify the avian designation - perhaps the garuda or orphan-bird - which might be given to those who would grant them asylum from disorders for which the United States itself bears a heavy responsibility.

Detention facilities are the first consideration in this society of carceral freedoms, although the first flight of forced 'repatriations' has already taken place. Much of the need for enhanced funding focuses on 'border security' measures, to deter from entering the US those whose countries have been rendered dangerous as a consequence of US involvement in Central America in recent decades: going back to the overthrow of Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala in 1954 by the CIA and the United Fruit Company which owned a considerable portion of the country's land, and the use of Guatemala for the training of CIA forces to topple Fidel Castro. We might remember 'Operation Sophia' conducted by the Guatemalan army in 1980, which targeted the indigenous Mayan people in order to eradicate guerilla resistance, during which hundreds of villages were destroyed and up to 200,000 people killed. Nor should we forget the civil war in El Salvador waged against peasants, labour organisers, students and priests by the Washington-backed dictatorship, and the assassination of Archbishop Romero while saying mass in 1980. Then there was the arming in the 1980s of the 'contras' in Nicaragua, an army of avenging angels unleashed to topple the Sandinistas.

In the wake of this historic assault on Central America in the name of 'democracy', a US-dominated globalisation has been imposed, and with it, the doctrine of government retreat from both economy and society. The bottomless US demand for drugs is the most recent element to have laid waste the already ravaged societies of the 'Northern Triangle'. The US war on drugs and its interdiction of drug routes in the Caribbean shifted the pathways of drug movement to Central America. The Mexican assault on the drug cartels from 2007 (in which at least 60,000 people died between 2006 and 2012) increasingly diverted the supply chain through the line of least resistance, the hapless territories of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. It is estimated that 90% of the price of illicit drugs is due to the 'black market' premium. In the presence of such big money, corruption is total: politicians and law enforcement agencies have been faced with the choice between  plata o plombo (silver or lead, cash or a bullet). This renders 'safe' the passage of substances which are apparently indispensable to alter the state of mind of the people of the most privileged country on earth. 

All this has enfeebled administrations in Central America and left swathes of territory to the control of maras or gangs, drug cartels, human traffickers and crime syndicates - a vast caricature of capitalist enterprise which has filled the spaces evacuated by government, so that groups battling for drug routes, neighbourhoods, transport systems and human trafficking have replaced the elected by the brutal power of a self-serving elect. 

It goes without saying that, in such governance-liberated zones, child labour - melon and coffee production in Honduras, domestic labour and prostitution in all countries - has flourished; malnutrition is estimated to affect half of Guatemalan children; and the homicide rate in all countries is the highest in the Western hemisphere, reaching 187 per 100,000 people in San Pedro Sula in Honduras, making a city of half a million people the most dangerous on earth.

While justice decays and government falters, the 'choice' for young people is either to join the gangs or flee to the apparent safety of the United States. Nor is flight a cheap option: the going rate for 'coyotes', or people-smugglers, to organise the arrival of any individual on the US border is between $5,000 and $7,000.

Of course, there are many humanitarian organisations - not least the churches - in the US who insist that the child refugees should have their cases for asylum properly addressed, but in general, the US repudiates any responsibility for conditions in what it once did not disdain to claim as its own 'backyard', and countries airily referred to as 'banana republics'.

It may be argued that it was not meant to be like this, yet the consequences for the region of the dogmas of the retreating state, and the criminality of 'non-state actors' - where civil society might have been expected to exist - are inextricably related to the work of the dominant power, which might, if it chose, see a distorted vision of itself in the mangled bodies and mutilated flesh of the youth of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, only without benefit of Tea Party, gun-lobby or far-right libertarian activists.

This is not the way the West's global projection of its earthly paradise was to have operated. It is true that a relentless imagery of plenty has been diffused globally for over half a century, which has set in movement a whole world of people anxious to find their way to the lands of fabled abundance.

The Western model of economic development was to have been imitated by all the nation-states of the world. Economic growth was to have propelled every country into its own particular inflection of the American dream: a replication of the holy trinity of freedom, democracy and choice was to have reigned supreme in every part of the globe.

It did not happen as calculated, because it could not. When national boundaries appeared to melt away in the presence of a single integrated economy, rich and poor ceased to be determined by 'local' (that is, national) conditions, but by a worldwide division of labour.

One result of this was that, even in the most successful 'economies' (as countries now find themselves disparagingly designated), the growth of an extensive middle class has been accompanied by an even greater number of poor; poor, not necessarily in the sense of being without basic nutrition, shelter and clothing, but poor in relation to the vast global hypermarket of excess, the overblown advertisement for the West's beatific vision. And in the rainshadow of the new rich, concentrations of traders in illicit goods, prohibited substances, endangered species and, of course, humanity itself, have prospered.

Clearly, in the homely provinces of Africa and Asia, in the dingy small towns, the sprawling slums, impoverished and degraded tracts of forgotten hinterlands, the promise that the whole world will be remade in the image of Western prosperity has been broken. In fact, not even the West itself can live up to the glowing imagery of abundance that it has exported, through the communications systems at its disposal, to the whole world. But that does not appear in the impressions, icons and tokens of wealth associated with the way of life of the West, when these reach the hungry eyes of the poor and outcast of the earth.

And on the whole, it is not the most wretched and deprived who make their way, in the illegitimate category recently devised by the rich world of 'economic migrants'. It is the most knowing, the wide awake, the educated and the competent, those who can afford the one-way fare to paradise, who will undertake risky voyages out of their own countries, staking their very survival on arriving in the sweet lands of their dreams, in order, all too often, to live six or eight in a room, getting up in the wintry dawn to pull cabbages or harvest strawberries, prepare coffee or sweep and scour great marble palaces of wealth before the workers arrive, or to lose themselves in labyrinths of petty crime, drugs and despair - the very circumstances they thought they were escaping.

When the people of the rich countries rise up, saying enough is enough, that they have become strangers in their own lands; when racism, xenophobia, intolerance and bigotry are expressed by people who complain of the dilution of their culture, the leaders of these countries are afraid. As long as the replenishment of a reserve army of labour could be sustained without any great public outcry - and the wellbeing of a majority was sustained up to the crash of 2007-08 - popular resentment at foreigners and aliens was only a sullen murmur, a sub-political disturbance that scarcely rippled the surface of life.

How different it has become now. The media will make of these children - the most vulnerable and defenceless people - illicit migrants, rather than fugitives from the consequences of American power. Obama himself, in Texas in early July, declared, 'This isn't theatre. It's a problem.' Half the $3.7 billion he has asked for is to go on caring for and 'processing' refugees (a significant word, since this is now as routinely applied to humanity as it is to any industrial product), while the rest is for militarised 'border protection'. At the same time, the issue appears in foreign policy 'initiatives' of the US. Some $9.6 million has been offered to rehabilitate and reintegrate the deported citizens of the three countries, as well as for crime and violence protection programmes. The derisory scale of this speaks for itself.

Obama has deported more people than any other president. Boundaries abolished for the passage of finance and goods throughout the world must be re-erected to prevent the movement of humanity. This is perhaps the most intractable result of globalisation: who is going to stay in the ruined landscapes of countries in which they never asked to be born, when all they have to do is to cross borders which can never be policed strongly enough to halt the waves of people evicted or expelled from their way of life, without redress or compensation of any other kind?

These sad children are the vanguard of those who, 'voting with their feet', threaten to undermine demarcations between privilege and poverty, even when these are reinforced by barbed wire, dogs, military guards and walls that cannot be scaled, overseen by watchtowers to repel what has been described as 'an invading army', but which may prove the nemesis of those who prioritise finance and merchandise over flesh and blood.                      

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt (published by Navayana, June 2014).

*Third World Resurgence No. 287/288, July/August 2014, pp 65-67