protesters carry signs that say "refugees welcome" in

Words Matter: How Refugees of Torture Became a “Migrant Caravan”

San Pedro Sula in Honduras was the murder capital of the world for decades, a title it lost only a few years ago to Caracas, Venezuela in 2016.

At its peak, there were an average of three murders a day, which is alarming for a city with a census population of around only 765,000. This violence is fueled by a booming drug and weapons trade, one-third of the population facing unemployment, the presence of violent gangs, and political strife that make living in Honduras a daily life or death struggle.

When framed this way, it is clear to see that the term “migrant caravan” doesn’t at all describe this group marching from Honduras, through Mexico to the United States border. Let’s not let politicos or the media brand them as anything else. Terminology is important here, and the term “migrant caravan” doesn’t even begin to describe this group.These people are victims of torture, fleeing a violent landscape to seek asylum for themselves and their families. Anything less than that is a disgraceful mischaracterization of who they actually are.

How Trump uses immigrants to strike fear into voters

One of Trump’s major campaign promises has been to stop illegal immigration into the United States. In his first television advertisement, he displayed photos of immigrants streaming over a border fence en masse. This set the stage for a call for a border wall, built by Americans and paid for by Mexico. This was our first look at uncontrolled mass immigration and allowed Trump to claim that immigrants were “swarming our southern border.” There were many issues with this image, primary among them was that the commercial footage was of African refugees fleeing into Morocco, not into the United States.

This isn’t the only fact Trump got wrong about immigrants. Since 2016, the leading country of origin for immigrants in the United States is India. It is true that Mexicans make up a fair share of the immigrant population, but that number is actually on the decline. More Mexicans are leaving the United States than are arriving, a trend that started in 2009. This is multifactorial and linked to family reunification, a declining job market and more aggressive enforcement. It also stems from how Mexicans currently view the United States. For the first time in a quarter-century, a majority of Mexicans (approximately 65 percent) have a negative view of the United States.

Despite this, immigration policy has been a signature issue for Trump. He has hawked his wall at rally after rally, separated children from families, cut visas, enforced travel bans, and despite it being a Constitutional decree, wants to outright end birthright citizenship. Trump rallies his masses by instilling fear that these immigrants are taking jobs, smuggling drugs and involved in violent crime. While all of these issues are widely exaggerated, it remains a key policy issue for Trump and his base, and one that they thrive on.

United States laws for refugees and asylum seekers

Immigration law in the United States is quite complex and beyond the scope of this piece. It is important to remember, though, that the “caravan” of people making their way from Honduras and Guatemala are not simple “migrants.” They are better defined as Refugees of Torture. They are fleeing a country filled with political strife, poverty and violence. These are not people looking for seasonal jobs. They are refugees, mostly woman and small children, suffering in 90-degree heat, walking hundreds of miles, to escape poverty, persecution and violence. This is a humanitarian crisis and to term the group a “migrant caravan” is an egregious misrepresentation fueled by an administration with an irrational fear of immigrants.

Many people in the caravan are victims of violent crime perpetuated by violent gangs like MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang. These gangs threaten families and inflict violence for any number of reasons from refusing to sell drugs to simply having the wrong tattoo. Others face prosecution for their sexual orientation, are beaten by husbands, or face political persecution because of social activism.

A 2017 UN High Commission on Human Rights report following the election of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez identified over 1,200 incidences of torture, extrajudicial murder, illegal detention as well as threats and intimidation inflicted upon the Honduran people.

Trump appears to want to ignore these facts and for that matter, the Geneva Convention. Article 1 of the 1951 UN Convention defines a refugee as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

There are some other qualifying conditions as well, but I’d say that even without a law degree, the “caravan” seems to me to meet this definition. And in cases where there are large groups of people fleeing violence, they are considered prima facie refugees. Not migrants, not seasonal workers — these are refugees fleeing violence.

Any way you slice it, these are people fleeing for their lives.

Rights of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

This is where things get a little muddy.

While the UN defines what a refugee and/or asylum seeker is, and people by law have a right to seek asylum, it is not implicit that any nation has to grant that right. There is no guarantee that a refugee or asylum seeker will be permitted into the country they seek refuge, even if they meet all of the criteria. However, Trump is walking a fine line. While he can refuse their entry, the state cannot send them back to their home country if it puts them at significant risk for harm, something he seems pretty intent on doing. Nor can they be punished for entering “illegally,” as long as they report themselves to the appropriate authorities upon entry.

There several interesting legal issues that have arisen as well.

That is whether or not we are bound by the Constitution to provide due process to those seeking asylum in the United States. The fifth amendment prohibits the government from providing life, liberty or property without due process. A complete blockade of the border might violate this Constitutional right and there is a lawsuit currently filed by the caravan against Donald Trump and the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions arguing just that. How this will play out in the court remains to be seen.

There is also the question as to whether or not deploying troops to enforce federal law would violate the Posse Comitatus Act. This law was enacted by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878 during the Reconstruction Years, as a means to promote the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate States. The law prohibits the use of the federal military forces to serve in a law enforcement capacity, except in the case of natural disaster or for homeland defense. Considering the make-up of the refugee caravan, they are not a risk to homeland security. This the deployment of troops is not likely to pass the Posse Comitatus litmus test and could very well be in violation of federal law.

Shifting the Paradigm

What can be done? First and foremost, it is imperative that people, politicians and media outlets stop using the term “migrant caravan.” Instead, we should be using referring to the group as “refugees of torture,” which better characterizes who and what this group is, and may help to shed more light on the trauma and tragedy these people have had to face.

How policy-makers and the media define certain groups can make an impact of how they are viewed by the public. To start, we need to use the right terminology and start calling these people refugees.

The fear, the racism and the hatred that has been brewed by this administration does not define us. Immigrants — which include a very high proportion of our recent ancestors — have made this country the culturally rich and diverse nation we are, and one that has welcomed the most vulnerable and marginalized people since we first set foot on its soil. As a country, we need to remember our roots.

There is also a responsibility of Mexico, the United States and the humanitarian community to ensure the well-being of these individuals and for the delivery of the proper medical care that they need. As has been described here as well as in numerous media outlets, these people have been walking hundreds of miles in high ambient temperatures, which is taking its toll.

We must have assurances that there are provisions for the human right to medical care, at the very least providing basic emergency care as well as treatment for the very young, the very old, and pregnant women. Instead of delivering troops to prevent these refugees from gaining access onto U.S. soil, our country should be deploying appropriate medical services to provide for basic healthcare needs, as they seek refuge and asylum.

The way this is playing out in the media, in the oval office and in the courts makes it clear that there is a vital need for improving the process by which those seeking refuge and asylum are treated and processed. Ensuring that families remain together, providing basic safety and healthcare needs, as well as increasing access to appropriate and swift legal services is an imperative.

The people marching from Honduras are refugees of torture. They are also brave, resilient, and most of all, fearless. They are risking everything they have, leaving families behind, and suffering from hunger and dehydration in order to have a small chance at a new life, at freedom.

This is a health and humanitarian crisis, and instead of troops, we should be sending aid. Our policies for asylum need to reflect our core values. After all, regardless of what definition you choose, they are people. Words matter. Using terminology that accurately reflects their refugee status rather than the dismissive use of the term caravan helps to restore their humanitarian status as humans in need of our help.


Photo by iliasbartolini/Flickr

Stephen Wood

Stephen P. Wood, MS, ACNP is an acute care nurse practitioner practicing emergency medicine in Boston, Massachusetts, and a fellow in bioethics at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

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