We Should Be Bridges, Not Walls
By: Wendy Matamoros Zambrana, FCAM.
This interview was conducted in October 2020. The analysis and reflections focus on the first year of the pandemic and the period preceding it. That said, the thoughts and issues covered are a timely reflection of what the 4,500 Honduran migrants that left their country on January 15, 2021 have lived through, fleeing structural and institutional violence, environmental destruction, sexual and gender-based violence, and extreme poverty. We thank Diana Damián and Alejandra Elizalde of FOCA for covering issues of human rights violations against migrant women with such a close, authentic – and above all, human – eye.
FOCA is a non-profit organization from Chiapas that has worked for the human rights of women and indigenous populations since 1996, expanding its reach over time to include both rural and urban women. When the organization realized that indigenous and young women that they were training around health issues were starting to migrate, they decided to do a research assessment about women’s migration in Chiapas.
Something that called their attention was that the majority of women “passing through” were not using the train called “La Bestia” (The Beast), and so they asked themselves, through where are they transiting? Where are they coming from with their children? To investigate, they traveled through the so-called “blind spots” in the Central Corridor and discovered that women were coming from Central America and other places, and they were walking or taking public or private transportation.
Chiapas is a state in Mexico where migration and its impact are amplified. There are those that come, those that go, those that pass through, those that come to work and during the week return to their places of origin.
Based on the results of the research assessment, FOCA decided to begin promoting the human rights of women and their families in migration through the organized Red Mesoamericana Mujer, Salud y Migración (Mesoamerican Network on Women, Health and Migration, RMMSYM). The Network coordinates across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico, and through various means, promotes the right to migrate or to not migrate, the right to land, to work, and to education, among others.
The first women’s border observatory was born of the work of the work of RMMSYM, located in the Central Corridor. This corridor is precisely the one that had not been researched – and was identified by FOCA in their research assessment – and it took 10 years of advocacy by the organization for the United Nations to recognize it as a corridor. This recognition ensures that the tools and measures of support – such as shelter (in the event that they request it) – are available for the women, men and children that pass through the Central Corridor.
The Red Mesoamericana Mujer, Salud y Migración covers four countries, and has alliances with other national, regional and global networks. This allows them to be recognized and to advocate internationally.
The RMMSYM has integrated a gender perspective with a feminist focus into its areas of research and action, as well as into its plans and advocacy activities. Women have specific characteristics, and thus specific models should be used in serving them.
FCAM: In the context of a global health crisis, what is happening with the women that migrate?
Women that migrate are not seen in the same way as men that migrate. Being the provider is an act that is socially linked to men. In this sense, women confront judgements and criticism because they are not seen as providers, and their decision to migrate is not recognized as an act to sustain or support their families. Furthermore, women – in contrast to men that migrate – have specific needs for services, for example, in terms of their sexual health.
From January to October 2019, we accompanied 1,530 migrants.
We have been accompanying 65% women and girls, and 35% men and boys (and in this case, more boys than men). Many of the women travel with their children, but some also travel with their male partners. One fundamental element of the accompaniment that we offer is that the person requesting legal or psychosocial support from FOCA are women themselves. They are the ones that are in contact with us. This is a component that involves strengthening their agency, which is not accidental – it is the intention of our model for it to be this way.
From January to October 2020, we accompanied 600 women. Which is to say, our flow of volume decreased, but it never stopped. The stories are still the same: women fleeing from structural violence, gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, and all of them have need for international protection.
As long as the comprehensive model promoted by the Red Mesoamericana Mujer, Salud y Migración has been in motion, the majority of the women that we accompany are asylum seekers. In this context, what happens with comprehensive health-related support? This has been a complex problem. The health systems throughout Mexico, but in particular in Chiapas, are devastated. There are not enough doctors or medicine. There was already a mentality of, “how are we going to care for foreigners if there is not enough for Mexicans?” – this dimension of xenophobia has only worsened with COVID-19.
During the first months of the pandemic, pregnancy monitoring was paused. Only cases of COVID-19 were receiving attention in hospitals. As a result, providing other kinds of services was very difficult. It was already complicated for women asylum seekers to access the health system in Chiapas, now with the pandemic it became necessary that we provide direct accompaniment to patients. For example, to ensure that a women that is going into labor or has suffered an accident actually receives attention. We are a far cry from access to health being something that is possible for women that are not Mexican.
As of October 2020, these services began to be restored in clinics and hospitals. Of course, anything having to do with sexual and reproductive health, and access to contraceptives, is still very difficult. Of all the women we have accompanied, only between seven and ten have presented symptoms of COVID-19 over these months.
FCAM: How is the health system and what is happening to women that are going to give birth?
The health system is focused more on attending cases of COVID-19 and not on maternal or reproductive health. There are no contraceptives, there is no pregnancy monitoring, and furthermore, the population is afraid to seek health services out of fear of contracting COVID-19.
In Mexico, the leading cause of maternal mortality is no longer hemorrhage… it’s COVID-19.
In the work we do, the two programs flow together between issues of migration and gender, as well as issues of comprehensive health. We also work with midwives throughout the entire Central Corridor border territory.
In the context of COVID-19, midwives are frontline providers. They have always been there, but now, their participation has increased.
Midwives are providing services to women because the health sector focused on COVID-19 and women were left behind. Now just imagine immigrant women. I’ll share a specific case with you. A pregnant Guatemalan woman crossed the border and sought health services, and they told her that they could not help her because she did not have Mexican documentation, to which she responded, “this is my right as a migrant.”
FCAM: How much has the stigma, discrimination and xenophobia against the women you accompany increased? How has the pandemic also brought out other forms of discrimination, that probably have been exacerbated?
Between April and May 2020, civil society organizations that are connected through various networks managed to stop the detention of migrants and have had migrant detention centers emptied in Mexico. But by emptying the migrant centers, what they did was literally throw people out onto the streets, with no guarantees and knowing that the borders were closed.
Detention of migrants in Mexico is unconstitutional, but it occurs daily and systematically.
We had data from shelters that had never received people that had returned. We have data that a few months ago (in August) migrant detentions resumed. For example, on October 13, 2020, in Comitán (a migrant detention center that we follow systematically), there were 200 people detained in a space that by law could only contain between 60-65 people. These people should not have even been detained. The detainees included women and minors.
People are detained in crowded conditions, without safe distancing, without masks. We know that systematically they are re-detaining people.
Another thing that we are doing through the systematic monitoring of migrant centers (we carry out monitoring at the Comitán, San Cristóbal de las Casas and Tuxtla centers) is providing information to people about their right to request asylum, their right to normalizing their migratory status under certain conditions, etc.
What they are doing is detaining and deporting them, that is, operating under migration policies focused on influx containment. With the large departure of people from Honduras, we saw for example that the strong containment actions were not carried out by the Mexican government, but by the Guatemalan government.
Border externalization is increasingly harsh on those that are migrating, particularly women and children.
FCAM: What do you know about the risks and human rights violations that are being faced by trans women and non-binary people?
In a context with exacerbated xenophobia, where people think that migrants are going to infect them with COVID-19 and that they are coming to take their jobs or take their partners, those are all elements of stigmatization and discrimination rooted in xenophobia, which is exacerbated when we are talking about trans women.
Our profile for accompaniment is women. In this sense, if the person identifies as a woman, we accompany them. In our case we have not supported very many trans women. We are currently accompanying two girls, one in Las Margaritas and another in Tuxtla; one of them is HIV positive. The situation of the girl in Tuxtla is especially difficult, because she was detained and they denied her right to self-identify. The immigration authorities did not recognize her as a woman, so they put her in the section with men.
What they tell us, and I can confirm this firsthand, is about the abuse in detention, the failure to recognize their gender identity and they place them in the men’s section. This puts them at incredibly high risk of rape and exacerbated violence, which is a measure of structural and bureaucratic violence that does not recognize their gender identification in order to complete their asylum application.
FCAM: What complexities do the women migrants and asylum seekers that you accompany confront?
Women asylum seekers are people with aspirations to stay in Mexico. First, they need to achieve normalization of their immigration status, and then decide the next steps in terms of their integration locally.
Even before the pandemic, the Mexican government created very few possibilities for local integration of asylum seekers and especially women, their children and companions. Now, the pandemic brought with it an even more precarious situation overall for women. For example, some had already managed to get a job (exploitative work, migratory, undignified, but at least, some kind of work); they had managed to rent a small space for themselves and their children. But when the pandemic came and the economy was restricted, business places closed and they lost their jobs, they were not able to pay their rent, and they returned to their initial moment of absolute need for humanitarian assistance, just to avoid suffering from hunger.
FCAM: It was thought that quarantine would be relatively short. No one thought it would last this long, that it would be so devastating, and that it would be sustained over time. What reflections and lessons have you taken away from this very complex and extreme context?
One lesson that we will have to continue to explore is the importance of working in networks, connection, linking internally through the Red Mesoamericana, as well as all of the alliances that the network has created. Even before the pandemic we knew that working in networks is a political commitment, both for the Red Mesoamericana and the Education and Training network.
Another fundamental element is the need to rethink everything around increased hardening of immigration policies and the suffering that is being imposed on entire communities, including communities of origin, transit, destination and forced return. Returning to the Global Pact to then figure out how it could be made a reality, recognizing not only the right of people to movement but also the value of everything that they offer to their communities of origin and the communities where they arrive.
Another lesson is the importance of modifying narratives linked with migration, as well as strengthening the use of technology for long-distance communication.
With respect to the narratives, it is important to think about how we inhabit and utilize the means of our organizations to benefit women asylum seekers.
The pandemic pushed us to make full use of virtual organizing strategies. For example, many women had never been in front of the camera on a computer and now they are doing it. They learned to communicate virtually and to promote issues through virtual networks.
The pandemic has been catastrophic, but it has also taught us to organize in different ways.
With the new narratives it is critical that we transmit more messages of fellowship, because discrimination has increased as migrants are seen as someone who brings COVID-19 and is coming to infect all of the places through which they pass.
FCAM: What kinds of needs do the migrant women that you accompany have?
The migrant women asylum seekers that we accompany are individuals with a need for international protection, which means they are refugees as victims of structural violence, institutional violence, and intimate partner violence. That is why it is so important to activate other narratives that allow for the creation of greater possibilities for shelter for these women.
I would also like to add that it seems that we continue to link transit over multiple days with the word migrant, and in the case of women, transit with their families to arrive North (even if they were only wanting to transit) can take up to one year, because they stop to work and then continue on their way. This idea of “I’m only passing through” is not exactly the reality of women that travel with children and families.
FCAM: Going back to the point about narratives, what is NOT being said, and what should be approached differently?
Something that is not being said is that the flow never stopped. And why did it not stop? Because women are trying to save their lives. The flow did not stop because of the gravity of the decision to migrate. For as much as there is a pandemic, if I stay here, I’ll die, I’ll be killed. It is precisely because of the gravity of their situation that women have need for protection, and when we say protection, we are referring to protection at the international level as outlined by the U.N., as well as at the community level, as in, how we can create networks of solidarity because these are women with needs for support, for help.
Another aspect that is mentioned, but needs to continue to be mentioned, is the way to deactivate the narrative that continues to harden migration policies. Why? Because it is causing suffering and death, both in communities of origin and of transit.
The plan known as “border externalization” seeks to turn us into a wall for the United States. We will not be a wall! We will not fortify xenophobic narratives!
FCAM: I would like us to continue talking about the narrative of criminalization of migration, which seeks to justify and incentivize structural violence, expressed through the police and military, against people that are in situations of migration.
The actions taken to contain the flow of the last exodus group (so as to not call it a caravan) that departed Honduras are serious, including in terms of managing humanitarian concerns. For example, we started hearing about a program in Guatemala that brings together Guatemalan citizens to act as informants for the government, to notify the authorities if there are migrants in their communities. This is terrible. This action by the government of Alejandro Giammattei violates the convention on open transit through Central America. He did not have to detain Hondurans, there was no legal standing for it, he did it simply to begin to put agreements with the United States into action, stopping people and sending them back.
The media display by the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), with the INM director joined by thousands of agents lined up along the Suchiate river to take a photo, even while they knew that the large contingent of people was no longer going to arrive, is part of the xenophobic narrative of the human wall. This was reinforced with a threat from the INM the night before, which said that whoever passes through and cannot prove that they do not have COVID-19 (which is to say, whoever has not had a test) can be subject to ten years of prison as a vector of contagion in violation of biosecurity control policies.
FCAM: What narratives should we share with the populations that are being bombarded by information filled with hate, racism, xenophobia and with a perspective that is totally disconnected from solidarity and empathy? And how can we begin planting that seed among people that are also terrified of the possibility of contracting the virus?
We need narratives that make visible not only the needs of other people, but also about our own possibilities for solidarity. For example, displaying community responses of basic empathy, solidarity and sisterhood like those shown by the midwives that are helping underserved women in this health crisis bring their children into the world, without holding back for one minute.
Making daily acts of community solidarity visible, for example, when we find out that migrant people are on their way and will need water, prepare to support them with churches and the local population. Also, increasing the visibility of communications from organizations to contribute to creating humanitarian conditions.
The governments of Mexico, Guatemala and the Central American region have infused terror and fear in their communities. The communities then take the limited and biased knowledge that they have, and stretch it to much more radical margins, with radicalized notions about the people that migrated away from their communities and that returned with the outbreak of the pandemic. These people are persecuted, detained or expulsed as if they were delinquents. For example, this is happening in Chiapas.
FCAM: What do you know about what has happened in El Salvador and Honduras?
This entire terror campaign is part of the same strategy, and what we need to do is share experiences like those of the midwives that have been working on the border so that people return to credibility and human solidarity, and we do not turn into participants in a lynch mob.
FCAM: What does health mean for women who migrate?
Often the women that we accompany face very deteriorated health. So, one of their hopes in migrating is having access to improved health conditions. This is very common in the comments we hear from women, particularly from Honduras. The search for better health conditions for themselves and for their children is one of the issues that motivates them to migrate.
We also saw a case of a Honduran Garifuna family that decided to migrate because they are parents to a child with severe cerebral palsy, and the gangs were not allowing them to access the health center for their child’s rehabilitation services. This motivated them to leave.