The Summit of the Americas: Time to deal with Migration

The upcoming Summit of the Americas offers an opportunity for governments and other stakeholders to jointly tackle the issue of international migration. This is an issue that affects every country in the region and an issue that cries out for joint, coordinated action. No one country can deal with the complexities of migration on its own.

For the past year, a high-level Grupo de Trabajo de Centro y Norteamérica sobre Migración has grappled with the issue of migration from northern Central America, convening consultations with policy-makers, experts and civil society groups throughout the region to assess the current realities and propose bold recommendations. Our conclusions emphasize the urgent need for a comprehensive, strategic, regional approach to address migration from northern Central America. Central American governments, together with civil society and the private sector must intensify efforts to address the systemic political and economic factors that have led millions of Central Americans to leave their countries.  

Governments simply cannot do it alone. And we need a new regional forum to focus on migration in all of its complexities — a forum not just of governments but which also includes migrants and faith-based organizations, academics and business representatives. We call for a new Migration Council, modeled on the successful Arctic Council, which brings together all stakeholders and where migrant groups and civil society organizations do not meet on the sidelines, but have a seat at the decision-making table.

Over the course of the year, we concluded that there are no quick fixes to address the drivers of migration; fundamental political, institutional and economic change is necessary. While foreign investment in Central American economies is needed, systemic issues of political will and corruption must be tackled to reduce political risk. This will take time and political courage. While governments in the region must demonstrate a commitment to change, other governments in the region must step up to support these efforts. We call for an international conference — bringing together the best minds in Central and North America — to develop a strategic plan to address the systemic economic weaknesses that have led so many to decide that leaving their countries is their only option for a better life.

Many Central Americans are leaving their countries because they are not safe at home. Their governments cannot protect them from the violence of criminal gangs or from violence in their homes. Protecting people in the region means working with women’s groups on the ground. It means prioritizing children and mobilizing organizations that work with them. It means protecting people when they are displaced within their own countries through policies that uphold their rights and ensure their well-being.

Central Americans are migrating through irregular means because there simply are not enough legal pathways to migrate. This means that the United States, Canada and Mexico should increase legal channels for Central Americans to migrate — through both labor migration and protection pathways.  Our report provides specific suggestions for how this can be done — from creating new migration pathways to expanding existing ones and fixing the operational problems that bedevil efforts to move people in need of protection out of their countries quickly. As we have learned in recent decades, strengthening border enforcement and militarizing borders does not stop irregular migration. It does not work and it is not a sustainable policy option. We need a new approach.  And this new approach should be developed in a coordinated, strategic way at the regional level.

Finally, we affirmed that civil society actors are playing valiant, humanitarian roles in the region but are under threat and are under-resourced. Civil society groups provide direct services to migrants, they monitor governmental actions — or inaction — to protect migrants and ensure that they are treated fairly by authorities.  They advocate on behalf of migrants and come up with creative ideas for alternative livelihoods and for mitigating the worst effects of climate change. All regional actors — from Central American governments to donors, international NGOs and financial institutions — must find ways to support their active engagement in addressing the drivers of migration, supporting migrants and returnees, and in advocating for needed policy changes. 

image: Central American migrants pointing to a map of train routes through Mexico; shutterstock/Joseph Sorrentino