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LATIN AMERICA: Reducing ‘Collateral Damages’ of Migration Policies

Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, Oct 31 2006 (IPS) - In countries like Mexico and Colombia, the power of the drug cartels has paralysed the state’s capacity to combat other transnational crimes like human trafficking, said an expert from Ecuador.

Although it is true that the production and trafficking of drugs eclipse other forms of criminal activity in Colombia and Mexico, “it is an error to see all transnational crime as involving drugs,” Fredy Rivera, a graduate studies professor of international relations at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), in Ecuador, told IPS.

The Colombian and Mexican drug cartels have ties with the Russian and Italian mafias, and everything is trafficked – from drugs, organs and people to “radioactive isotopes,” said Rivera, who took part in Monday’s forum “The Hidden Face of Migration: 21st Century Slavery?” in the legislative palace in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital.

In his country, Ecuador, illegal drug plantations and guerrillas are not a problem, but there are heavy flows of migrants and refugees from civil war-torn Colombia, as well as trafficking in persons, he said.

The United States wants to “combine everything into a single, unified security strategy, which is the same as throwing apples and oranges into the same bag,” Rivera told IPS.

Through its “cooperative security agenda,” Washington is pushing for military accords with other governments on these issues, the signing of which brings benefits in terms of foreign aid and trade, while limiting national autonomy in the area of foreign policy, he maintained.

The U.S. Coast Guard carries out patrols in international waters almost as far south as Chile along the Pacific coast, in a policy of “intercept, board – and sink” that targets vessels suspected of carrying drugs, for example, said Rivera.

“They act on the basis of suspicion, but many of the boats that are sunk were only carrying migrants” heading to Central America, and from there to Mexico on their way to the United States, said Rivera.

This kind of activity by the Coast Guard barely receives any media coverage, he said.

Migrants who drown when their boat sinks or capsizes, those who die of exposure, starvation or thirst in desert areas along the U.S.-Mexican border, or those who die making the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing between North Africa and Spain are the “collateral damages” of international migration policies, which no one takes responsibility for, said Rivera.

He suggested discussing the creation of an international system that would hold countries, legislatures, and justice systems accountable for measures taken that lead to the deaths or suffering of migrants, and added that this should even include a system of providing reparations or compensation to migrants or their families.

The international forum was organised by the Uruguayan office of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Uruguayan Ministry of Education and Culture’s human rights office. Rivera was one of the speakers at a panel on irregular migration and trafficking in persons in Latin America.

Ecuador, a country of 12.5 million, has seen an average of four percent of its population emigrate every year since 2000, mainly to the United States and Europe.

However, it is also the biggest recipient of Colombian refugees fleeing the armed conflict in their country. In 2000, Ecuador received some 400 applications for asylum, a number that had climbed to 12,000 in 2003. So far this year, some 4,000 applications have been received, said Rivera.

The Ecuadorian government turns down 45 percent of the requests. The rejected applicants are left in a kind of limbo: they are not deported, nor are they placed in the category of undocumented migrant living illegally in the country. But they do not receive the protection entailed in asylum status either.

Ecuador has signed and ratified the international conventions on these questions, which partly explains the reason more Colombians choose to flee to Ecuador than to other neighbouring countries.

But Ecuador “is not Norway,” and the end result is “many poor people competing with other poor people for the scarce resources of the state,” said Rivera.

Three problems are linked to irregular migration flows: national security, human rights and ever-increasing numbers of migrants.

When migration policies are designed on the basis of national security concerns, the right to refuge and asylum is undermined. Furthermore, bilateral tensions are created, such as the tension between Mexico and the United States, Colombia and Ecuador, or Nicaragua and Costa Rica, caused by the heavy flow of migrants or refugees from the former to the latter, in each case.

One factor that adds to the difficulty of identifying and tackling migration-related crimes is the lack of visibility of the problem and the dearth of adequate legislation for dealing with it.

“Trafficking in persons is not new, but it is on the rise, and it does not only affect women and children,” said Francisca Ferreira, with the Centro de Orientación e Investigación, a non-governmental organisation in the Dominican Republic that provides assistance to survivors of human trafficking.

Some countries are especially vulnerable, like Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. “But the crime exists everywhere, even in Cuba,” said Ferreira, who is also the coordinator of the Caribbean and Latin American Network against Trafficking in Persons, founded in April.

Trafficking is not necessarily an international crime, and is often linked to cultural aspects. “The girl who is sent to town from the countryside so she will have proper housing and square meals as a domestic but ends up exploited, working long days, without the right to schooling and without receiving any pay” is a victim of trafficking, Ferreira explained.

“This could be happening right in our own homes, and we don’t even notice it,” she added with an ironic smile.

Trafficking implies “sexual or labour exploitation, coercion and abuse,” she said. Forced prostitution, labour exploitation, servile marriages, begging, illegal adoption and slavery are all forms of trafficking.

One of the Network’s aims is to put an end to the impunity enjoyed by traffickers, “who profit from a lucrative business, the second largest criminal industry in the world after drug trafficking,” and one that is often confused with migration or voluntary prostitution, said Ferreira.

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