Each young smiling face gave their presentation about how to inspire their fellow Hondurans to stay in Honduras. “We have so many opportunities here,” one woman explained, “and people need to see that all they have to do is think
The event, a US embassy-sponsored project to help young people investigate and tell stories about the causes and effects of migration in Honduras, pulled together passionate young communicators from different parts of the country to participate in a workshop about storytelling. Through this workshop, the youth developed their own projects that would help them tell stories about migration in Honduras. They presented their projects in an event so full of inspiration and promise.
However, the way the majority of the young people talked about migration gave me a feeling of unease. I wasn’t able to place a finger on the feeling until I heard the coordinator of the event mention how August was the month of “Prevention of Irregular Migration” in Honduras, a phrase that I hear on the radio all the time now. While this wording is used internationally, it seems to oversimplify the realities of Honduran migrants, many of whom could be better labeled as “displaced peoples” or even “refugees.”
Is a lack of positive thinking the reason that so many people are leaving Honduras?
“According to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, gang violence in Honduras, along with El Salvador and Guatemala, is driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes every year – a situation it has described as a ‘refugee crisis.’”(Moloney, Reuters).
During that month of August, I heard government-sponsored ads on the radio about how dangerous it is to travel with “coyotes” through Mexico, but no news stories about how dangerous it is to be a small business owner in Honduras due to the “war tax” extorsion phenomenon. I heard inspirational public service announcements on the TV of Hondurans who worked hard and were able to improve their lives without immigrating, but no official statements on how to bring to justice the men dressed in police uniforms who arrested two highschool student leaders from their homes without warrants and executed them.
Miguel Mourra, executive director of the Tegucigalpa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Cámara de Comercio e Industria de Tegucigalpa – CCIT) estimated that at least seven out of every 10 small businesses in Honduras has closed due to extortion. Other estimates suggest extortion may be responsible for the loss of as many as 130,000 jobs in recent years.(LaSusa, Insight Crime)
“We cannot ignore that there are other problems that push Hondurans to close their businesses,” Mourra told El Heraldo. “However, the issue of extortion and insecurity has become the main cause.”
The idea of being able to prevent migration by either inspiring Hondurans to stay in their own communities and create their own work, or by scaring Hondurans with stories of the dangers of migration, furthers a narrative that is simply incorrect: people are leaving because they choose to leave.
Many leave because they must. Apart from the ever-present threat of gang violence, the US-backed election process at the end of 2017 increased the amount of human rights violations in the country, and human rights activists, currently including local high school students, are in even more danger of being killed by government or paramilitary forces.
Positive thinking is not enough to solve the migration situation in Honduras.
Lack of Data Contributes to Increased Vulnerability
A study by the National Autonomous University of Honduras about migration in Honduras concluded that there are simply not enough studies done in the area of migration in Honduras to be able to create working laws that help migrants, both internally and internationally. This lack of data creates difficulties for the government and NGOs to be able to help migrants, especially Hondurans deported from the US.
One NGO in San Pedro Sula has difficulties finding deported Honduran young people to give them a chance to participate in their job training program, a way to help young people reintegrate into Honduran society and thus avoid the siren call to try to migrate again.
The data needed to find the returned migrants is simply not available.
A few months ago, my pastor, evangelizing in a small town outside of San Pedro Sula, approached a man who looked distraught. She told him that God was with him, and to not be afraid. His eyes welled with tears as he responded: “How did you know? I was deported last week from the US, and I have no idea how to find out where my daughter is. She was separated from me in the detainment center.”
The plight of this man is not uncommon: there are few ways for lawyers helping the separated children to contact parents, or for deported Hondurans to contact their children separated from them in the process of deportation (“Inside the Desperate Search for 343 Parents Deported Without Their Kids”). Lawyers in search of missing parents worry about the possibility of these children becoming essentially orphaned.
Academics and civil society agree that the lack of definitive facts related to migration in Honduras is directly tied to the government’s narrative about itself as having reduced migration, as well as reduced the crime rate. This lack of data makes the already vulnerable population of returned migrants even more vulnerable, because it is even more difficult to care for their well-being in the midst of a precarious return if the government and NGOs do not know who or where they are.
Possibilities for Change
After hearing the shining messages of the young people at the storytelling event in August, I asked a participant in one of the programs what he thought about the conclusions of the speakers. “I liked the part about making our own opportunities,” he conceded, “but I didn’t really hear anything about why people actually leave.” I asked him why people leave, and he only had one word: “Violence.”
Violence displaces people from their homes, families, jobs, and communities more than any other factor in Honduras at this moment. According to a study by ERIC-SJ in Honduras, surveys show that over 30% of people who migrate from the country chose to do so directly related to causes of violence.
The possibilities for long-term change must include solutions for violence, corruption, and impunity in Honduras. North American governments must hold the Honduran government to higher standards in its election processes and in protecting human rights.
A positive mindset is not enough to change a government-sanctioned culture of violence.
Against all odds, Hondurans are so resilient in the face of everyday violence. How much would they be able to shine if they could use this resilience in economic and social change instead of focusing on everyday survival?