Thousands of people in Honduras leave their homes each month and trek thousands of miles across borders seeking a better life. The reasons why they leave are complicated, with many fleeing persecution, corruption and violence. In the last of a three-day series, Jess Casey travelled to Honduras with Trócaire and met those working with migrants
VERY month in Honduras, 9,000 migrants leave their homes and journey thousands of kilometres,
mostly by foot, in the hopes of crossing the border between the US and Mexico.
It’s difficult to pin down an exact figure on the number of undocumented migrants attempting to leave Honduras, but last year 102,000 people were officially deported back to the Central American country.
In 2018, the US and Mexico deported almost 23,000 children and minors back to Honduras.
That same year, the mass exodus of people fleeing Central America began to receive worldwide attention, when thousands of people left Honduras on foot travelling together in ‘caravans’ for safety.
When the caravans began arriving at the US border they were labelled by Donald Trump as an “invasion”.
The stark reality is that these groups are made up of families from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala fleeing persecution, violent crime, and corruption.
The numbers of migrants leaving Honduras has steadily increased each year since the country witnessed a major military coup in 2009.
Close to 130,000 asylum requests were recorded in Honduras between 2014 and 2018, making it the eighth country worldwide in terms of the number of people seeking asylum.
During this same timeframe, roughly 73,000 Hondurans had been forced to leave their homes due to a variety of reasons. Internal displacement is seen as the leading precursor to migration attempts.
There are several routes Honduran migrants travel along in their attempts to cross the border.
One common journey taken involves travelling through neighbouring Guatemala, towards Mexico City. From here, they travel onwards to Tijuana where they attempt to cross into California.
If they have the money, families can pay people- smugglers, called ‘coyotes’, to help get them across the border. The service can cost up to $10,000 (€9,200), and gives people three attempts.
There are many reasons people leave: With a population of 9.5 million people, the country has the highest unemployment rate in Latin America.
Organised crime is rife in Honduras, and it has been dubbed a narco-state due to the links there between drug trafficking, state officials, and cartels.
As a result, ordinary people are often left in the crossfire of gang violence, and many face extortion.
Honduras also has one of the highest homicide rates per population in the world, with just over 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
In 2013, it was even higher again, at almost 80 homicides per 100,000 people. In comparison, Ireland’s homicide rate is 0.80 murders per 100,000 people.
When asked why they are leaving, some families say they are fleeing gang recruitment. That’s according to Yolanda González Cerdeira.
Yolanda is an immigration expert, working with Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC) a Jesuit centre for research in El Progreso, Honduras.
ERIC and Radio Progreso are partners of Trócaire.
Yolanda’s work with ERIC has led her to interviewing families who have attempted to leave, many as part of caravans, to document their reasons for doing so.
“One of the families we talked to mentioned that they had a 10-year-old who was being recruited by gangs, and so they left because of this.”
Gangs can begin attempting to recruit children as young as seven, and it most often happens by the time they turn 10 or 11, Yolanda added.
“So you can compare the situation to the situation of African migrants who are going to Europe who are fleeing from being child soldiers.
“For many people leaving the country becomes their only choice. We are seeing that street violence and insecurity in the country is compelling a lot of people to migrate.”
People in Europe or in the United States might wonder why families don’t attempt to tell the police that this is happening, she added.
“[The families’] response ranges from first being ‘nothing will happen’ — there is a lack of trust in institutions in Honduras — but also the second being that ‘police are colluding with the gangs’.”
This is not a case of just “some bad apples”, she added: “This is a system issue.”
However, it’s too easy to lay blame solely with the gangs.
“It’s easy to hold this position and blame gangs for migration, and this is a narrative that the government wants to push as well, but there are many reasons.”
“In Honduras, we are talking about forced migration, not voluntary migration, because there are several factors that are making people leave and there isn’t a single one,” Yolanda said.
“Perhaps the most important question when talking about migration in Honduras is why people leave.” It’s said that migration is an expression of the everyday crises people are experiencing, she added.
“As an example, we asked a young man why he was leaving and he said, ‘there’s a greater chance I will be shot in my neighbourhood than me finding a job’.”
N Honduras, three out of four children leave school between the age of 12 and 18. Four in 10 people live in extreme poverty.
“Instead of increasing the budget to respond to this emergency the percentage of the national budget for education keeps decreasing in contrast with the budgets for defence and security which is ever growing.“
Climate change is another element fuelling migration out of Honduras, where many small-scale farmers find themselves affected under pressure due to years of drought.
Territorial conflicts are another reason why people seek to migrate, Yolanda said, adding that researchers from ERIC had spoken with families who had left their homes due to a mining project on their ancestral lands.
“When we asked them the reason why they were leaving, they said they were afraid the military would break into their homes and kill them.
“People wonder why the face of migration is the face of a woman most often but that is because the faces of poverty and violence in this country are most often women.”
Women face their own set of risks and violence in Honduras; Every year, thousands of women are murdered. Very rarely are their killers punished.
This is also the case when it comes to sexual abuse and rape.
Recent statistics show that out of more than 2,880 claims of reported sexual abuse, just 14% were prosecuted, and 8% were sentenced.
Almost 640 of these claims are related to minors.
“There is almost total impunity over the general population but that is affecting especially women,” Yolanda said.
“People often wonder why the face of the caravan is mostly women, and it’s because women find safety travelling together with a large group of people in a caravan.
“One example of this is that it is quite normal for women to get the contraceptive injection, that will provide them with contraception for one month, before they undergo the migratory route.
“And this is done without any drama, like a natural thing, because they acknowledge the possibility of being raped or being coerced into sex in order to gain protection and so this is very normal for them, and it’s just the way women are facing the risk and naturalising it.
“Mexico deports more people now than the United States, especially minors,” Yolanda explained. “The reason for this is that, ever since 2014 there’s been a strengthening of a policy from the United States of outsourcing their borders and moving them further south.
“There was a statement from a high-ranking official in the US government that ‘our new border is Chiapas [the Mexican state bordering Guatemala]”, she said, adding that this statement was made during the Obama administration.
The migrant route is treacherous and it can be difficult for migrants to keep in contact with their families. Many disappear seemingly without a trace.
This is where the Committee for the Relatives of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso steps in. Known as COFAMIPRO, it is another organisation working in partnership with Trócaire.
Rosa Nelly Santos founded the organisation in 1999 to help the mothers of missing migrants with their “anguish and pain”, she explains.
INCE 2010, the organisation has run its own annual caravan of missing relatives. Together they set off
from Honduras, travelling along the migrant route into Guatemala and Mexico, stopping in towns and cities.
They bring photographs of their missing relatives with them, and visit bars and prisons, asking if anyone has any information that may help them.
“If a government supports us, fine. If not, we go without it,” she said. “Migrants are easy prey for organised crime. There’s collusion between many different networks when it comes to trafficking.” For example, migrants are very vulnerable to being forced into domestic work or into sex work, she added.
“We’re looking for governments to assume their responsibilities when it comes to looking for their missing relatives.
“Many people come, even from rural areas, and we take long buses to Mexico and Guatemala. We don’t take men, just women, so that women can change and feel comfortable on the bus.”
COFAMIPRO is currently assisting 700 families who have relatives missing on the migrant trail. It also provides free counselling through a psychologist to deported women who may have suffered severe trauma on their travels. The organisations also help returned migrants set up micro-businesses in a bid to give them employment on their return to Honduras.
A lot of migrants may acquire a physical disability during their attempts to cross the border — for example by falling from moving trains, Rosa added.
Leticia Martínez is one of the volunteer coordinators with COFAMIPRO. It was her own experience with being separated from her daughter who migrated in 2004 that led her to the organisation.
“When she asked me to take care of her children, I said yes, because I had nothing else to offer her,” Leticia explained.
Although she had managed to keep in contact with her daughter for eight months after she left, one day they were cut off from each other after a digit was added to every phone number in Honduras.
“Can you imagine,” Leticia said. “My daughter kept calling, she thought that I didn’t want anything to do with her.”
Heartbroken, Leticia heard about COFAMIPRO on the radio. She immediately got involved. In 2014, and not in the best of health, she attended her first caravan.
“My love for my daughter compelled me to go,” she said.
In 2018, 14 years after they first lost touch, Leticia’s daughter found her on Facebook. “She thought I’d have no access to social media. When I saw her message I thought it was a bad joke.”
Leticia was so happy to find out her daughter was alive and well. “She asked her children for forgiveness, and they said it didn’t matter, we have our mother and she is alive.”
Her daughter is in a worse situation than when she left Honduras, and cannot return, she explained: “She is 42 years old now, and the fact is it is hard to get work here at that age. Even young people can’t find work.
“It’s not easy to leave with a backpack full of hopes and return perhaps empty-handed.
“When I came here first, there were between 200 and 300 mothers being assisted here. Now it’s grown to more than 700 throughout the years.
“Mothers come from all around, from San Pedro Sula, by the coast, by the border. Everywhere.”
Trocaire is asking the public to hold their Trocaire boxes at this time until it is safe to return them. Donations can still be made online by visiting www.trocaire.org/donate or by calling 1850 408 408 (0800 912 1200 in NI).
‘Even by hearing a door banging, I was traumatised’Case study: Keilin Anamin Anariba Amaya, deported migrant
Keilin Anamin Anariba Amaya, 22, is from El Progreso, a city in the north west of Honduras.
She has attempted to migrate from Honduras several times but has been deported each time.
“The first time I got only to Mexico, the second time to the US.
“In Honduras, I will never find a job,” she said when asked why she wanted to leave.
A few days before we met Kellin in El Progreso, word had gone around that there was a warehouse looking to hire people, she tells us.
It turned out to be a scam to lure people out to an isolated address to trap them into working for free.
“I don’t want to go and stay there and live forever,” said Keilin. “I just want to build something up so I can have something back here and have a home here. That’s my dream, to help my family.” Her most recent attempt was in January of this year, but she only got as far as Tapachula, a southern border town in Mexico, where she was captured by Mexican marines.
Her first attempt was in 2018 when she set off with friends.
“We didn’t pay any smugglers; it was a group of friends travelling sometimes by foot, sometimes on buses, hitchhiking, anything,” said Keilin.
“I was afraid and scared but little by little I wasn’t. There were about 11 of us.” Her second attempt at crossing the border was last year, when she went with her younger sister.
“She crossed and I also crossed on March 14 to the United States and that was when things went really wrong for me, because they kept me caged for about three months.” She crossed the border between Tijuana and California along the beach, where she was caught and separated from her sister. She was moved to animmigration detention centre.
“I crossed from Tijuana to California along the beach and they moved me from there to Arizona and from Arizona I was moved to Texas,” sid Keilin.
“I was captured by immigration and from California they kept us in a cell that was isolated, in a room in isolation. They kept us for 20 days in there.” She was later moved to Arizona.
“It was very cold. The cold was killing me. There was a lot of air conditioning and they call it the ice box.
“They would only give us a small mattress and one of those nylon sheets and we were told that if we broke them they would not give us another one. We only were allowed to take a shower every three days, every five days, and we needed to be naked. You had to wear the same clothing. I think only once was I able to change clothes.
“The food was awful. I lost a lot of weight. Twenty days after I arrived, they took me from Arizona to Texas by plane. We were given the choice of pursuing our case or being deported.” After a month and a half,Keilin decided that she wanted to be deported.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said. “In front of the judge, I asked to be deported. I had a sister who was sick and a grandmother. The people who I tried to do this for, to try and pursuea better life for, they had no knowledge of what had happened to me.” On March 23, she was “granted a deportation” and was deported on May 27.
“My sister is a minor and she crossed successfully; using adifferent border.” She was aware of the risksbefore she left, she said.
“When you leave you assume the worst; you assume you will have to endure anything.” Travelling as part of a migrant caravan can be a beautiful experience, she said.
“But you suffer, you suffer when you hitchhike. You sleep when night falls because you cannot keep walking at night. Many people will give you water along the way. Many people along the way are very good and they help us.” Travelling in caravans from Honduras to Mexico takes between 20 to 25 days, and the journey to the US border takes about two months.
“Often it’s the same reasons why you migrate, the lack ofemployment,” sid Keilin. “In my neighbourhood about a month ago, there was a woman who was murdered and it was as if they killed her with hatred.
“It was horrendous, they disfigured her and tortured her and dismembered her. It was around the corner from the neighbourhood where I live.
“That also sets fear in you because you are also a woman.
“It compels you to leave. We are not safe even in our own homes and in our own country.” Keilin has recently begun engaging with Cofamipro who offer counselling among their services. “When I was being deported, I was traumatised,” she said.
“Even by hearing a door banging, I was traumatised and scared because that was the same kind of shock you would get from the police officers in immigration and their behaviour and I thought yes, perhaps I would need a psychologist, because ‘wow, you’re afraid’ but now thanks to God, I can work on my own mindset and help myself.”