November 14, 2018

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The Migrant Caravan: What to Know About the Thousands Traveling North

The Migrant Caravan: What to Know About the Thousands Traveling North
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PIJIJIAPAN, MexicoFor two weeks, throngs of people have trudged north, crossing first from Honduras into Guatemala and then on to Mexico, bound for the United States border. They have spent nights in sprawling makeshift camps or in churches and schools, washing their clothes in rivers and relying on donations from locals.

As their numbers grew into the thousands, so did attention to their journey, first making news locally and then internationally, as President Trump and Republican politicians took aim.

The conversation about the migrant caravan has been characterized by misinformation at times, some of which has spread widely. Here are some important things to know about the group’s origin, who is involved and where it is headed.

The United Nations refugee agency, which has helped coordinate relief efforts, said as many as 7,000 people have traveled with the caravan. Unicef estimates at least 2,300 children are among the group.

The Mexican government has cited a smaller figure, around 3,600 participants.

Whatever the number, it has shifted as some people joined and others left, worn down by exhaustion, illness or injury. Some people have applied for asylum. The United Nations refugee agency has reported that some 1,500 people lodged claims for asylum in Mexico.

The caravan is a mix of those who face grave danger in their countries and intend to petition for asylum and those fleeing poverty and unemployment. Most are Honduran, though other Central Americans have joined in smaller numbers. Many are traveling with their children, though adult men traveling without families are the single largest contingent. Most travelers have little sense of the political debate their journey has generated in the United States.

The caravan left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Oct. 12, assembled through a grass-roots social media campaign that started in early October. The campaign drew the attention of a Honduran news outlet, which focused on the organizers’ criticism of the Honduran president, and then spread to other outlets.

For Hondurans facing high unemployment, gang violence and a recent drought, the caravan’s appeal was clear. Within days, thousands joined the group. And as word spread through Central America, it drew people from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The caravan offered safety on a route where many Central American migrants have disappeared or been kidnapped, and a way to circumvent the high price of hiring a smuggler to aid passage to the United States border.

Participants have depended on the aid of locals as they travel north. Town and state leaders have organized shelters and medical tents. Church and civic groups have appeared with pots of tamales, rice and beans, spaghetti and, in one town, rice pudding cooked in enormous pots over wood fires. Water has been handed out, often in small plastic bags.

But the health of those in the caravan has deteriorated. Local aid groups noted a rise in conjunctivitis, respiratory illness, fever and diarrhea. In Mapastepec, Mexico, more than 4,400 people were treated in medical tents on Wednesday, according to a doctor with the town’s health services. The most common ailments have been dehydration, sunburn, blisters and swollen feet from walking dozens of miles a day in flip-flops or flimsy footwear, medical workers say.

Over all, traveling in the group has seemed safe, but there have been some scares: A rumor that men were plucking children from the crowd in one town kept people up all night guarding families. Speculation that the migrants had been directed to a sports complex in Huixtla, Mexico, so they could be turned over to the authorities caused people to flee en masse.

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said in Geneva this week that the agency was concerned about “the developing humanitarian situation and the known kidnapping and security risks in areas the caravan may venture into.”

The group has covered about 20 miles a day, although temperatures in the 90s and torrential downpours have slowed its progress at times. Many participants have taken rides with good Samaritans or on cheap buses. Others have clambered onto truck beds. This week, a Honduran man, 21, fell from a truck near Tapachula, Mexico, and died, the first confirmed death of a caravan member.

It is unlikely that much of the group will reach the United States border before the country’s midterm elections on Nov. 6. Defense Department officials on Thursday said there were plans to deploy hundreds of troops to the border with Mexico, though the group is still more than 2,000 miles from Tijuana, where a large previous caravan reached the United States.

As the caravan entered Mexico, some travelers were pushed back or met with tear gas at the border. But as the migrants have advanced, officials and residents have largely greeted them with an outpouring of support, preparing food, handing out water and providing rides. Some have offered the floors of their homes and businesses for sleeping, and menial jobs if participants wanted to abandon the journey.

The mayor of Huixtla, where the caravan spent two nights, said in a speech in the central square that he would try to make the migrants’ stay as pleasant as possible. The local government set up speakers and held rallies where mariachi bands played, a clown performed and pastors offered prayers.

The municipal president in Mapastepec, where the migrants spent Wednesday night, deployed every member of his staff — about 300 people — to help care for the group.

Caravans of migrants from Central America have made their way to the United States border before, but this is the largest in recent memory.

Like a group that traveled last spring, the caravan has drawn condemnation from President Trump, who has made it a focal point at rallies and used it as reminder of his campaign promise to be tough on immigrants and harden the border.

Even if the entire group reaches the border, its numbers represent a fraction of the migrants who arrive at the border each year. There are no official figures on the total number of illegal crossings, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained some 396,579 people who crossed the southern border with Mexico illegally from October 2017 to September 2018.

There is little sign that Mr. Trump’s antipathy has deterred migrants from making the journey north. Another group of more than 1,000 has formed in Guatemala, and Hondurans have continued to try to leave their country.

Annie Correal reported from Pijijiapan, Mexico, and Megan Specia from New York. Kirk Semple and Maya Averbuch contributed reporting.



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