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Central American migrants easy prey for criminal gangs
Central American migrants easy prey for criminal gangs
The Fragility of Northern Syria
The Fragility of Northern Syria

Central American migrants easy prey for criminal gangs

Originally published in Miami Herald

They come across in rafts, in buses, hidden in cars or walking along remote paths — and some wind up in brothels or worse in towns along Mexico’s 720-mile southern border. Mostly young and mostly poor, they are another “product” to be smuggled north toward the United States by organized crime networks.

Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from Central America are caught in a dangerous web — where they face kidnapping, extortion, sexual exploitation and other violent crimes. Yet they still risk the journey, as many feel they have no alternatives.

Governments across the region — namely, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. — must work together on policies to ensure that there are better alternatives. In the meantime, they should guarantee those fleeing violence the opportunity to seek asylum through fair and efficient procedures.

The United States took one step on Tuesday by expanding some of the programs to assist those who have legitimate claims to asylum because of the violence they face in their communities. They also will allow some most at risk to travel to Costa Rica where UNHCR will help while the still exhaustive U.S. review takes place. However, it remains very small, likely to only apply to 200 over six months.

While important, the reality is that the problem is far larger and the U.S. has subcontracted to Mexico the burden of coping with the lion’s share of the 400,000 Central Americans who migrated north last year. However, it has not matched that assignment with greater support for asylum claims to be heard, for shelter and help with integration for growing numbers who are granted refuge in Mexico.

When President Barack Obama and Mexican President Peña Nieto met in Washington last Friday, they discussed the migration challenge but announced no significant or specific new actions. The lack of progress is perhaps not surprising in an election year when the issue of immigration has been a lightning rod. Both Obama and Peña Nieto rejected Donald Trump’s proposed new wall along the border as unwise and ineffective.

However, more urgent action is required.

Tougher border control, with the U.S. deporting 75,000 last year and Mexico turning back more than double that number along its southern border, has the unintended consequence of strengthening criminal gangs and the corrupt officials who look the other way. By making the passage more difficult, the gangs can charge more, extort more and take their pound of flesh at will.

Desperate to leave an El Salvador that last year had the highest homicide rate of any country not at war, or Honduras which had the title a year earlier, migrant families risk the dangers to take their chances with the smugglers. The combined murder rate in the Northern Triangle is more than triple the rate in Mexico and well over ten times that of the U.S.

The International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that works to prevent deadly conflict, has just issued a report urging the U.S. and Mexico to stop treating what is now in large part a violence-driven refugee crisis as if it were still solely an economic migration problem.

Analysts interviewed migrants on both sides of the Mexico-Guatemala border for the report, “Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Violence”. They heard stories like those of Cindy, a 23 year-old from San Pedro Sula, in northwestern Honduras, who walked all night through the brambles of the border, determined to find work either in Mexico or the U.S. so she can get her children away from the local gangs who recruit kids as young as 6 or 7 as lookouts.

A UN study last year of Central American and Mexican women seeking asylum found that 64% had been targeted by direct threats or attacks, or had lost a close relative to violence.

The Northern Triangle migration routes overlap with the drug trafficking corridors that carry cocaine from Colombia or via Venezuela. So it is not surprising that many of the smugglers are either controlled or taxed by cartels like the Zetas in Guatemala and Mexico, or home-grown organized crime networks that also dominate human trafficking operations. The most vulnerable are unaccompanied children or those traveling with their mothers, adolescents and single women. The sex industry along the Guatemala-Mexico border is largely supplied by migrants, especially adolescents.

One way the U.S. could help Mexico shoulder the migration burden would be to offer direct financial aid to Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance to evaluate asylum petitions and to provide alternatives to detention for families seeking refuge to remain together while their cases are heard. Another would be to work with humanitarian agencies and community organizations to protect migrants who have been victims or witnessed violent crime, abuse or corruption so they can testify against their abusers.

Both Mexico and the U.S. should adopt a policy of not deporting minors until safe return can be guaranteed. That will require Mexico to offer more humanitarian visas for more Central Americans who reach that country and the U.S. to extend Temporary Protected Status to those in the U.S. , starting with minors, who fear a return to violent neighborhoods in the Northern Triangle.

Finally, more needs to be done to change the conditions that push citizens from the Northern Triangle to flee, particularly to address gang violence, corruption and pervasive inequality. President Obama’s Central American Alliance for Prosperity development program is a wise investment, but it should be extended for at least five years, with resources conditioned on Northern Triangle countries making policy changes that address both impunity and inequality.

These steps would be far more acceptable and effective over the long term than building a high wall along the U.S-Mexico border.

The Fragility of Northern Syria

A full-blown COVID-19 outbreak may trigger a greater human catastrophe in northern Syria, where ISIS activity persists and Idlib’s peace remains ever-fragile. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support a stronger ceasefire in Idlib and increase assistance to health and governance structures to keep COVID-19 and ISIS in check.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

With global attention focused on fighting a deadly pandemic, the security situation in northern Syria remains fragile and could break down at any time. In the north east, erratic U.S. decision-making in 2019 enabled a Turkish incursion that in turn put local anti-ISIS efforts in jeopardy. The arrival of COVID-19 is further threatening the precarious status quo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), exercises tenuous control over the area. Between leading operations to smash ISIS cells, holding off pro-Turkish forces and guarding prisons housing ISIS fighters, it is already stretched thin. The SDF’s capacities may crumble if the pandemic hits the north east in full force. On 30 March, and again on 2 May, ISIS detainees overpowered guards and took over an entire floor of a prison compound in the provincial capital Hassakeh before SDF personnel were able to quell the uprising.

Idlib is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy.

In the north west, Idlib presents another conundrum. The last stronghold of Syrian rebels and jihadists, the province is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires in Idlib have broken down time and again. The latest one, concluded in March, is holding thus far, but it bears all its predecessors’ flaws and is therefore also prone to erode. The spectre of COVID-19 makes a more permanent ceasefire in Idlib all the more urgent, since only concerted international action at a time of relative calm can contain the contagion. The offensive has all but destroyed Idlib’s health care sector, and an outbreak could prove disastrous.

European capitals have a strong interest in helping mitigate Syria’s humanitarian disaster, while keeping ISIS at bay. As such, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Contribute additional funding and protection for SDF detention centres holding foreign fighters. The EU and member states should also offer the SDF technical and financial assistance to enhance its capacity to prosecute Syrian ISIS members in its custody or under its control. In addition, they should aid SDF efforts to reintegrate released and former ISIS members into their communities in Syria.
  • Revitalise its approach to stabilising the north east by supporting civilian-military governance structures in which local Arab authorities play a central role in predominantly Arab areas. Establishing such structures would require giving the SDF incentives to devolve authority to local governing bodies, including their security services, to avoid an anti-SDF and anti-Kurdish backlash from which ISIS would benefit.
  • Maintain diplomatic pressure on the SDF and Turkey to commit to a humanitarian truce in north-eastern Syria. While the SDF has publicly endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, there has been intermittent fighting between the SDF and Turkey (and Turkish proxies) along the front lines, diverting resources from the campaign against ISIS and causing civilian casualties.
  • Continue humanitarian preparations in the event of a regime attack on Idlib and/or the full outbreak of COVID-19. Plan and build aid infrastructure; pre-position assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
  • Support the COVID-19 response in both the north east and north west, including by increasing humanitarian aid and delivering personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators.

The North East

In March, ISIS called on its members to take advantage of COVID-19’s spread to intensify their global war. While there have been no major security breakdowns in north-eastern Syria to date, sporadic incidents of violence raise concerns about the jihadist group’s remaining presence. ISIS has maintained a drumbeat of low-level attacks across the region, despite being geographically and organisationally fractured. It has shown a certain resilience, notwithstanding its territorial defeat and the loss of its top leadership. Its fighters have carried out roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations targeting local Arab SDF elements, in particular. Its cells have also coalesced to set up checkpoints and extort money from traders crossing Syria’s eastern desert.

Such attacks aim to weaken the SDF and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with the authorities. Fear of ISIS retribution has harmed the SDF’s ability to gather intelligence necessary for effective counter-insurgency measures. Residents attribute the persistence of ISIS activities partly to lack of popular confidence in a sustained U.S. troop presence in eastern Syria. ISIS cells have also benefited from mistrust between locals and the SDF – exacerbated by the exclusion of local Arab leaders from decision-making – which gives the militants room to operate among the population. It remains unclear whether ISIS will be able to further reconstitute its local support at a time when the SDF’s focus is elsewhere.

The SDF’s reduced military capacity as a result of the Turkish offensive raises questions about whether it can keep guarding ISIS detainees. In an audio recording released in September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to free ISIS detainees and their families from prisons and camps. The group lately renewed this call, arguing that the coronavirus is diverting the attention of governments or groups holding them. On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted in a prison in Hassakeh city, wresting control of a whole floor from the facility’s guards. It took nearly a day for the SDF to regain the upper hand and determine that no prisoners had escaped. SDF authorities later explained that inmates had revolted partly because they feared contracting the illness in such cramped quarters. On 2 May, ISIS prisoners took control of another SDF-run detention facility in Hassakeh; the SDF and detainees negotiated an end to the standoff a day later.

Following these events, the SDF is rightly concerned that ISIS could raid its makeshift jails in conjunction with prisoner riots to enable mass escapes. This threat will become all the more serious if COVID-19 starts to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. The prospect that something similar could happen in al-Hol detention camp, which holds over 60,000 ISIS-related women and children and where tensions flared regularly between militant women and guards even before the pandemic outbreak, is extremely worrying. Renewed fighting between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border would only worsen these problems.

The North West

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime has pursued an incremental military strategy for reclaiming the rebel-held north west. Its campaign escalated in April 2019; by March 2020, it had left over a million Syrians displaced. Russian warplanes have compensated for the regime’s weaknesses in ground warfare, driving the human toll way up. The combined air and artillery attacks ravaged towns and villages, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the province’s northern reaches. At least 1,700 civilians were reportedly killed in these strikes. With over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its border with Syria, Turkey followed through on a threat to open its European frontiers, allowing migrants and refugees to pass into Greece, and thus sending the message that it would not shoulder a new refugee burden on its own.

Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire remains at great risk of falling apart.

On 5 March, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia agreed on a new cessation of hostilities in Idlib, establishing a “security corridor” extending 6km on each side of the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway, an area under rebel control, to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish soldiers. The agreement froze the conflict along the new front line, letting the regime hold onto many areas it had retaken in the latest offensive, and leaving civilians who fled the conflict with no prospect of returning to their towns and villages. Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire, like those that came before it, remains at great risk of falling apart.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The entirety of northern Syria remains vulnerable to renewed conflict. In the north east, the EU and its member states should continue to offer much needed support to the SDF to allow it to weather the crisis and remain an effective anti-ISIS force. Building on EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call for an immediate and nationwide ceasefire across Syria, the EU and its member states should put diplomatic pressure on their Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to commit to a truce that could allow all parties to focus on fighting the pandemic. They should accompany this request with humanitarian aid to help the SDF respond to a coronavirus outbreak if and when it accelerates.

The EU will also need to do more to share the burden with Turkey in north-western Syria.

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the Middle East. Support for Syrian refugees in the region is one of the short-term priorities in the EU’s Team Europe program responding to COVID-19. On 30 March, it committed support to countries hosting Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – to help them fight the pandemic. While this step is welcome, they should equally make sure to provide assistance inside Syria, particularly in Idlib, including support directed toward health and education. The Brussels Conference scheduled for the end of June, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, will be an opportunity to mobilise European and other donors to pledge further aid to civilians in Idlib, especially in light of the coronavirus threat. The EU and its member states could also offer direct support to grassroots organisations working in Idlib and encourage EU-funded organisations to focus their efforts on that area. While EU-Turkey relations are strained, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by the regime offensive – to preserve and strengthen the ceasefire in Idlib as an immediate priority. European states should continue to back Turkish efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Idlib, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. They should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria-related matters.