Thousands of Hondurans are walking north in a ‘Central American Exodus’ seeking asylum in Mexico and the United States, making the dangerous trek to escape overwhelming violence and inequality in their home country, but despite such efforts, many end up returning to their home country through deportation or voluntarily return, ultimately failing to complete their journey north.
Of the hundreds of thousands who leave, many return. Between 2016 and 2017, 117,392 migrants went back to Honduras. For most returnees the idea of going back to a country that last year registered 3,791 homicides and a 70 percent poverty rate is traumatizing. They need help and that help is available through non-government organizations (NGO), not the state.
Human rights organization, Mennonite Social Action Commission (CASM) has been operating in Honduras for more than 35 years. In 2014 the organization began the Helping Migrants Program when thousands of “young people were deported from the United States,” in order to help them readjust and find work, Mercedes Perez, the program’s director tells teleSUR during a phone call.
Since then the program has helped over 600 returnees between 15 and 30 to reestablish themselves in San Pedro Sula where the program operates.
CASM provides its clients first with psychological and self-esteem help.
“The majority of people who come back are suffering, so we make psychological help a priority,” Perez says. “We do an extensive intake survey of the returnees in their homes to understand their surroundings. We help them re-establish their self-esteem before anything else.”
Perez takes teleSUR through the program process: “After the psychological help we help returnees with education and technical training.” CASM provides carpentry, electrical work, refrigeration, and culinary arts training to clients, “depending on their abilities and likes.”
She adds: “We help returnees finish high school,” as more than half of Honduran migrants leave without graduating. CASM even provides clients with a small grant to finish their university degree if that’s their goal.
That’s what CASM did for Javier B., 20, who was deported after the United States rejected his asylum application. “CASM has given me the chance to get ahead—they gave me a new purpose,” he told teleSUR.
Javier was forced to flee Honduras when he was 17 years old. That was June 2016. "Unfortunately, gangs killed my cousin," making him one of the 2,300 people under the age of 23 murdered in Honduras between 2014 and 2016.
Then Javier received death threats: “They were threatening my life. I left because my life was at risk,” he tells teleSUR. “My family said I should travel to the United States. That was the main reason I left.” Javier became one of the 22,186 Hondurans that sought legal asylum in the United States that year.
He didn’t feel safe reporting his threats to authorities. The police are corrupt, he said.
Last year a ring of Honduran police officers was found guilty of aiding and abetting the infamous MS13 gang to extort, murder, kidnap and drug traffic, despite President Juan Orlando Hernandez, or JOH, (2014-present) ordering the purge of some 4,450 corrupt police members in 2016.
Rather than ‘cleaning house’ the JOH administration has created 14 new militarized police units since 2013 and increased military spending, with U.S. funding, in the name of national security.
However, “security funding,” according to Dana Frank, UC Santa Cruz history professor emerita and expert on U.S. foreign policy in Honduras, “is spent, in part, on trying to stop Hondurans from fleeing their own country, or repressing those who try to achieve a measure of democracy.”
Hernandez' repression became glaringly apparent last November where for three months state security forces cracked down on thousands of street protesters who demonstrated against his widely-regarded fraudulent 2017 re-election. The result was at least 31 protesters assassinated, over 230 injured, and another 1,000 detained. Despite international outrage, Hernandez remains squarely in office.
“Ever since the 2009 military coup (removing President Manuel Zelaya) … Honduras has failed (as) a state to provide for its citizens, enforce the rule of law, and function as a vehicle for democratic decision making,” Frank stresses to teleSUR. Since the coup underemployment, unemployment and sub-employment have doubled and now account for 63 percent of the population and education spending is down.
The state persecutes society’s most vulnerable and justice-seeking members—women, children, Indigenous land rights activists, union leaders, journalists, and LGBTQI.
Honduras ranks high in terms of impunity and last January Congress passed legislation that blocked the investigations of at least 140 public officials for graft.
Head of state Hernandez is himself guilty of directing the U.S.-backed, illegal overthrow of Zelaya and stacking the Supreme Court in his favor. Documents show that the president and his National Party embezzled as much as US$90 million from the national health system into his party’s 2013 electoral campaigns, wrote Frank in 2016.
When asked if Honduras is a failed state, Frank argued: “It’s not a failed state for those who profit from it handsomely, whether Honduran elites, transnational corporations, or gangs, organized crime, and drug traffickers.” She accentuates, “Far from being a failed state, it serves them well.”
Inequality and violence force people to flee to other countries. If deported, they are forced to return.
Javier was greeted by CASM when he landed in the San Pedro Sula airport in September 2016. He was 18 by then. "CASM was there at the airport and they came up to me and told me they could help me. They took my information and contacted me days later.”
Javier says the organization provided him with a three-month course on baking. There were 20 others deported from the United States who studied with him. “It gave us the chance to share our stories of being sent back and returning to Honduras.”
He explains that CASM “awarded me a 25,000 lempiras (just over US$1,000) ‘seed capital’ grant to start my own bakery that I now run with my parents and brother,” The young baker excitedly describes his business as a “success.”
CASM also helped Javier get psychological assistance and the organization “always keep in touch with me, checks in on me” he says.
Javier suddenly adds: "I’m also studying law in the Honduran Technical University (in San Pedro Sula).
"I want to be a judge. I want to help the people who need it like CASM helped me," says Javier. "I want to be able to help low income [people] because they are the persecuted in this country because unfortunately, our country is very poor."
He further adds that CASM has given "me the chance and hope to move forward—they gave me a new purpose,” reporting that he hasn’t received any death threats since he came back but that he’s “still scared.”
He adds quickly: “I know I have a reason for being alive and that someday I’ll die but one has to put fear aside and move on.”
CASM client, 27-year-old Nelsy left Honduras to escape her home life and to look for work as lack of jobs and low wages are Honduras' biggest migration drivers. She was unemployed and her partner prohibited the mom from seeing her son of two years at the time.
"I left San Pedro Sula on June 28, 2014. My boyfriend wouldn’t let me see my son, so I decided to leave and start over." Nelsy adds immediately: “I’m lucky to be alive.”
The then 23-year-old traveled to Villahermosa, Mexico where she found a job working for a family at their shoe shop, stressing: "I had a very good relationship with the family. They told me to call them if I ever needed help."
Honduran friends living in the area "convinced" Nelsy to try to go to the U.S. They hired who they thought was a coyote and a few days later they: “got in a truck with no windows with 30 other people,” including parents and children.
Nelsy says she didn’t know where the truck was taking them but once out: "I realized we had driven somewhere outside of Veracruz and we were put in a big house where they locked us inside. We were there for a week. We couldn’t leave. It was really bad."
The young Honduran said that the kidnappers extorted everyone in the group: "I could hear them telling others they had to pay and they kept taking people away," who Nelsy never saw again.
"We were just waiting there hoping they would move us on," she told teleSUR.
"There were five of us left when they told me I had to call someone for money. I had no family to call so I called the family in Villahermosa" that negotiated Nelsy’s release. "They let me out and I walked and walked and called the family and the next day the family picked me up in Veracruz."
She spent six more months working for the family in Mexico before heading home in late 2015. "I got off the bus and CASM was right there in the station and they told me they could help me settle back into Honduras. They took my information and said they would call me," which they did.
Perez says that visiting returnees in their homes is important because it allows the organization to get to know clients’ living conditions.
"Later they helped me with psychological help and gave me classes on how to repair cell phones and I opened my own (repair) shop" that Nelsy began with seed money from the Mennonite organization. "I appreciate CASM because they have always held my hand in the good and bad," even when Nelsy’s phone repair shop flooded and she lost her entire investment.
"Then they gave me a workshop on sewing and I’ve been a seamstress since January 2018, which I really like," Nelsy says finding the silver lining.
The Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI) comprising 20 European Union nations also helps Hondurans safely return after having migrated to the EU.
Since 2015 the OEI has operated the European Reintegration Network (ERIN) to help migrants voluntarily return to Honduras.
The ERIN process begins in Spain. "The Spanish office helps returnees with the reintegration process before they even come back," Lucy Nuñez, an ERIN case worker based in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa tells teleSUR.
Spanish caseworkers conduct an extensive intake interview with Hondurans and then Nuñez "receives all their information prior to their arrival," says Nuñez, giving returnees seamless service. ERIN provides those who decide to go back to Honduras "with a return ticket, and seed money," to help them resettle.
Once in Honduras Nuñez creates a ‘reintegration plan’ with goals and objectives—“If people need psychological help we guide them there. If they need help with health we direct them there. We guide them and get them access,” she says by Skype.
By the end of her first meeting with clients, Nuñez “understands why they left, how it was in Spain, and why they decided to come back—their whole story."
Nuñez recounts that she is currently helping a 56-year-old woman with her return process who is "emotionally destroyed (and) has been suicidal” to return to Honduras after escaping an abusive marriage in the U.K. "Some cases are very brutal," she adds.
ERIN’s work in Honduras has exceeded all expected numbers since it began three years ago.
“In 2017 we planned for 25 cases and got 53. This year we planned for 60, and have worked with 83 people so far,” Nuñez says.
Similar to CASM, ERIN clients, "mainly come from low-income homes, and have low education levels," explains Nuñez, and like CASM, ERIN helps migrants with technical training, resume assistance, education and seed money to start a small business.
Nuñez says they have a lot of success cases, for example, a woman returned from Spain and ERIN “provided her a grant and now she has a business employing two people."
Nuñez says to teleSUR that she works with a lot of government institutions such as the ministry of labor and that the current administration is trying to create "jobs and get people ahead but in reality, it’s not working. … It isn’t sufficient. … The government isn’t confronting the situation so that everyone gets opportunities."
The ERIN caseworker goes on: "The number of people who need help goes way past what the government is offering. The (returnees) need immediate help that the government isn’t helping to resolve, for example, food, housing, clothes.
Nelsy says: "I haven’t seen or heard of any program for returnees from the government." Laughing, she adds: "The state keeps saying it’s doing something to help migrants and those who come back, but no."
"There is little evidence of Honduran government support for returnees, beyond nationalist rhetoric by the President and his wife," confirms Frank.
First Lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez with the Honduran foreign ministry introduced the first Municipal Unit For Returnee Migrants (UMAR) in 2017, the government’s first initiative aimed directly at helping returnees. The government has yet to publish statistics regarding the program.
After several attempts at communication, the Honduran foreign relations office told teleSUR it would take questions regarding UMAR but the office never responded to the inquiries.
The government has even limited organizations’ ability to help returnees. Between 2014 and 2017 CASM operated within national airports "to more easily reach people," says Perez. That’s how they got in touch with Javier B.
"But the government stopped letting NGOs do this in June 2017 and refused to give an explanation as to why," Perez informed teleSUR. “We are entirely willing to work with state offices but they won’t let us.”
Perez says somewhat exasperated: “On the one hand the government says it is doing everything to help the returnee population, but on the other hand these types actions show that they aren’t letting us do our jobs."
As the U.S. and Mexico confront the mass exodus of Hondurans and Central Americans asking for asylum, their plight continues to be a struggle between home governments propped up by billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid, and anti-immigration administrations in the U.S. and Mexico reluctant to welcome them.
One thing is for sure. If these migrants return, it will be CASM, ERIN and other organizations that will help them reintegrate, not their very own governments.