FAQ - Women and Refugees

As I put the final touches on this book, the news are filled with reports of a refugee crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. In some ways, the framing of this crisis in U.S. news and in politics repeats long-standing patterns. Our national conversations focus little on the events forcing people to flee their home countries. An emphasis on finding a single, magical cure to the problem obscures the range of actions required to address a very complex issue.

This FAQ offers some basic information on the refugee crisis, giving special emphasis to women’s experiences. In contrast to the men’s labor migration at the heart of Marriage after Migration, the refugee crisis has been characterized by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as “Women on the Run.”

1. What is the difference between a migrant, a refugee, and an asylum seeker?

The International Rescue Committee offers the following distinctions. A refugee is someone “forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again.” An asylum seekers is someone “seeking international protection from dangers in his or her home country,” but whose claim for legal status by a host country or an international body (such as the UNHCR) has not yet been determined. An immigrant is someone who “makes a conscious decision to leave his or her home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there.”

In practice, while there are clear-cut examples where refugees can be distinguished from migrants, some situations blur the line. For example, when Calakmuleños felt they had no choice but to work in the United States, they could be considered economic refugees. Increasingly, in the case of climate change, environmental conditions are creating “climate refugees,” some of whom are also affected by violence in their home countries.

2. Where are the people in this wave of refugees coming from?

Mainly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (known as “the Northern Triangle”). Violence in Mexico is also creating its own flow of people.

3.  Why are they leaving those countries?

For the deeper historical reasons, see this timeline. Also, check out T.W. Ward’s Gangs without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang to learn about the origins of some of the criminal groups in Los Angeles, California. Central America has a history of U.S.-financed civil wars which left local society vulnerable to incursion by armed groups.

The immediate reason why people are fleeing the Northern Triangle is violence arising from “impunity.” Impunity is a situation in which people do not have to face the consequences of their actions. In Mexico and the Northern Triangle both government and private sector actors, including criminal groups, operate with impunity. In general, they do so because they have the money they need to pay for weaponry and foot soldiers. This money may come from extortion (in the case of gangs), from drug trafficking, and legitimate sources such as taxes and international aid.

In the case of state offices, these are often “privatized” which means state agencies work on behalf of private individuals rather than the public. When state offices are privatized, the usual agencies that ensure safe communities—especially police officers—fail to do so.

4. Why are people coming to the United States and not some other country?

Refugees fleeing to the United States come here for two reasons. The first is that they already have family in the country. These refugees are already part of transnational families. In reality, they are seeking help from their families who also happen to live in the United States.

The second reason is that, because of past migrations and past globalizations, the migratory routes between Central America and the United States are now well established. These routes are equally well established between Mexico and the United States (see Gomberg-Muñoz’s Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network). People come to the United States because that’s where the road leads.

5. Why are women and children such a significant portion of the refugees?

To answer this question, we have to first consider the unhealthy expressions of masculinity that have sprung up in Central America in the last decades. Between the civil wars that took place in the 1980s and 1990s and gang-based crime since that time, many parts of Central America are now home to militarized societies. In militarized societies, people organize themselves for conflict. They glorify both the use of weapons and masculine aggression.

In Central America, this idea of a militarized society applies to both gangs and governments, but one difference between the two is that gangs recruit children as foot soldiers. “Recruit” isn’t quite the right word. Actually, gangs threaten children “to join or die.” To avoid being forced into a gang, children must flee their countries.

Gangs are attractive to some youth given a lack of jobs offers them little hope for a better future. As one report indicates: “Underemployment is endemic, with 46 percent of Salvadorans, 41 percent of Guatemalans, and 53 percent of Hondurans lacking minimum wage-level employment. The rates are even higher for youth. In El Salvador, 60 percent of youth with nine years or less of education are either unemployed or underemployed (Stinchcomb and Herschberg 2014).” But given the high rates of violence, gang members die young. Gang members are thought to range between 12- and 24-years old.

When societies experience high levels of violence stemming from either the state or the private sector, the aggression follows people into their homes. When that violence is carried out by teenage boys and youths, who haven’t had a chance to mature into men and are living in a world marked by drug addiction as well as violence, the consequences are devastating.

Women are a significant portion of the refugees because, for many, the gang members in their lives have given them a choice: “Either I control you, or I kill you.” The gang member may be a boyfriend or a husband. The gang member may be a man who saw a woman on the street and decided he wanted her for himself. The gang member might be a random connection that pulled a woman into a world from which the only escape was to flee.

Northern Triangle countries rank among the highest in the world for femicide. Again, given the impunity, men face little to no consequences for murdering a woman. Women do not find help or protection from their local government.

6. What does all this have to do with money, romance, gender, and globalization?

This question merits a more thorough answer than is possible in this limited space, but here are some points to consider.

- The societal and interpersonal violence in Central America operates alongside and often to the benefit of global economic enterprises. Consider this news report on the connection between fracking, mining, femicide, and migration. The non-profit Washington Office on Latin America tracks U.S. keeps track of U.S. financial aid to the Northern Triangle.

- To the extent the money circulating in the Northern Triangle comes from drug trafficking, especially the shipment of cocaine to the United States, everyday consumers of illicit drugs in the United States form part of this global web. The National Institute on Drug Abuse publishes data on U.S. drug habits.

- In the midst of these global connections, human emotions remain as complex as ever. Within these global cross-currents, love is not always neatly distinguishable from abuse, and romance is not easily distinguished from exploitation. In a post titled “Why Do I Love my Abuser?” the National Domestic Violence Hotline explores this complicated terrain. The Domestic Violence Resource Center also offers this guide to Understanding Domestic Violence.

7. What will happen to these people if they are not allowed into the United States?

If the future is anything like the past, most likely refugees will try to stay in Mexico or somewhere else far enough from their home community that they do not feel threatened. The long-term consequences of this possibility are troubling. Unsanitary, make-shift refugee camps have sprung up in Mexico. A “migrant industry” in Mexico preys on the vulnerable. Desperate refugees make for cheap labor. Women running from rape and domestic violence in El Salvador and Honduras have been forced into sex work to survive. Children who have no adult supervision or whose parents’ lives are in too much upheaval to care for them adequately are at special risk. They might well become the alienated 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds who criminal groups rely upon to act as child soldiers. While not all refugees would face such grim futures, the obstacles they faced in realizing safe and secure lives would be considerable.

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