Assistant Secretary General Speech


March 3, 2020 - Washington, DC

Thank you very much for the invitation to join you here today and for this warm welcome. I wish to thank Catholic University and the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, and specifically Dr. Sandra Barrueco who made this event possible. While this is my first time visiting Catholic University, being among you and witnessing your enthusiasm signals to me that our hemisphere’s future is in safe hands under the strong leadership of inspired youths like yourselves. I look forward to an enriching exchange with you.

I would like to share some thoughts on the important and complex issues of migration in the region, its main drivers and challenges and how this challenge also presents tremendous opportunities for the countries involved and the peoples of the Americas.

In recent years, Western Hemisphere countries have seen a major surge in asylum-seeker and refugee populations. Indeed, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there were between 500,000 and 550,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in the Western Hemisphere from 2008 to 2013, it asserts that that number began to increase in 2014, soaring to approximately 870,000 in 2017, and exceeding 1 million by mid-2018.

Due in large measure to its long internal armed conflict, Colombia had for decades produced the largest share of forcibly displaced persons in the Western Hemisphere. A decline in the number of refugees and asylum-seekers between 2012 and mid-2018 resulted from the negotiation of a national peace agreement and trends toward political stability in the country.

In Venezuela, the dire political and economic crisis has led to one of the largest human mobilizations in the region’s recent history. According to reports, approximately 5 million Venezuelans have fled their country, and projections are for the numbers to range between 7.5 and 8.2 million by the end of this year.

It is within the context of the wave of migration and potential implications that I approach today’s conversation on the theme of ‘Central America Migration: Converting a Challenge into an Opportunity’.

The factors driving the increase in refugees, asylum-seekers, and other migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the three Central American countries known collectively as the “Northern Triangle,” arise out of their own peculiar circumstances. These countries are all afflicted, to varying degrees, by a set of interrelated challenges that can be attributed to crime and violence, food insecurity, and a lack of economic opportunity.

For around 387,000 people from the Northern Triangle, such myriad complex issues left them no other choice but to flee across an international border. As of June, 2019, the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide originating from the region had increased by 107% compared to 2016, and by 1700% compared to 2012. To bear out this point in clear statistics, in June 2019 there was eighteen times more people from North Central America as refugees or asylum seekers in the world than in 2012.

In the United States, much of the discussion surrounding migration has centered on the sharp increase in Central American asylum seekers along the U.S southern border. Yet we must also remember that many people from this region are often internally displaced within their own borders because of violence and insecurity. Notwithstanding, neighboring countries are also the final destinations of migrants. For instance, the social and political crisis faced by Nicaragua since April 2018 forced about 97,000 citizens to flee to neighboring countries. Approximately 77% of those that moved are now in Costa Rica, with thousands of Nicaraguans also in Panama and Mexico.

For many of these OAS Member States, the staggering levels of crime pose the greatest risk to economic and social development. Although the nature of violence varies from country to country, they all share common destabilizing factors such as rampant transnational crime and hardened conflict between rival gangs. Homicide rates in all three countries have dropped in recent years, nevertheless, the Northern Triangle, still tops the list of the world’s deadliest regions outside a war zone. People threatened by gangs often find themselves without refuge within their own countries and are forced to abandon their homelands in fear for their lives.

Another leading driver of migration from the Northern Triangle is the link between climate change and the disruption it has wreaked in Central America’s Dry Corridor. This tropical dry forest region on the Pacific side of Central America that naturally experiences irregular rainfall has become one of the regions most susceptible to climate change-related erratic weather patterns.

Agricultural setbacks, caused by years of drought, unpredictable weather and crop failure, have fueled extreme food insecurity, which cumulatively exacerbate poverty and threaten stable long-term economic growth. Persistent extreme weather has negatively impacted the resilience of communities throughout the region and led to significant increases in cases of malnutrition and other long-term health challenges.

In recent years, climate change related drought has devastated agriculture yields in the region, driving subsistence farmers and their families to abandon traditional ways of life and to embark on arduous and dangerous journeys northwards in search of economic opportunity.

This is a serious problem not only facing this region, but also affecting global migration. The UN estimates that by 2050, there will be 200 million people forcibly displaced from their homes due to climate change alone.

Closely linked to the disruptive effects of climate change and rampant crime is the lack of economic opportunity. The region is among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. While gross domestic product (GDP) has increased in Northern Triangle countries in recent years, in 2018, all three countries ranked in the bottom quartile for GDP per capita among Latin American states. Approximately 60 percent of Hondurans and Guatemalans live below their countries’ national poverty lines, according to the most recent data from the World Bank, compared to 30 percent of all Latin Americans.

Today more than ever, these dynamics present both challenges and opportunities for these countries of origin, transit, destination and return. Clearly, these countries cannot, on their own, bear all the responsibility. Indeed, these trends highlight the need to address forced displacement within the context of the commonly held value of responsibility sharing.

From an OAS perspective, we recognize that the responsibility of protecting the human rights of migrants and refugees, on equal terms with other citizens, lies with all of us. Respect for their human dignity promotes their inclusion and, at the same time, recognizes that their contributions are key to the development of countries of origin, transit, and destination.

The resulting effects of this premise are highly positive, and are reflected in the economic and social spheres as critical to generating plural, peaceful, tolerant and inclusive societies.

The opportunity for an intra-regional approach to addressing this issue ensures the protection of the human rights of every person by invoking the four pillars of the Organization of American States: inclusive development, multidimensional security, human rights and democracy. This requires solutions from a regional perspective within a spirit of solidarity and shared responsibility.

In that framework, I would like to highlight some of the initiatives that we have been carrying out with a transformative vision for addressing human displacement with a view to capitalizing on the enormous opportunities that this phenomenon presents.

It is important at the outset to cite as an example of the positives arising from a concerted joint approach the ‘Regional Comprehensive Framework for Protection and Solutions’, known for its acronym in Spanish MIRPS. This regional and multilateral response mechanism emerged through the adoption of the San Pedro Sula Declaration in 2017 by Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Mexico. This State-led process is designed to respond to the large-scale forced displacement faced by these countries of origin, transit and destination, recognizing that the resulting complexity of the phenomenon within their borders brings significant impact to bear on countries of origin as well as on countries of transit and destination.

The MIRPS promotes regional partnerships towards a comprehensive and operational response that would strengthen the protection of people in displacement and of the communities that host them, and encourages durable solutions while countering the cycle of formed displacement in the region. It combines national arrangement mechanisms and action plans developed by each of the seven countries, with a regional approach led by the OAS as a Support Platform, assisted by a group of donor and observer countries of the OAS referred to as “the Friends of the MIRPS”. These countries are: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the United States of America, Uruguay and Permanent Observer States of the OAS, such as Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, the European Union, and the Holy See.

The countries that comprise MIRPS have made progress in the development and strengthening of their National Plans. This has helped to increase the areas of protection for displaced persons, improved access to social protection and the local integration of these populations, as well as fostering actions aimed at expanding investment in education, access to formal labor markets and other livelihood opportunities.

The OAS trough the Department of Social Inclusion, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is in charge of the Joint Unit to follow up on the progress and to incorporate the responses of the Inter-American system within the ambit of refugee and displacement issues.

Within the framework of shared responsibility, the MIRPS also prioritizes the consolidation of strategic alliances among relevant actors, including the private sector and civil society, so that they can contribute to the objectives of this cooperation mechanism through the design and implementation of joint programs and projects.

Taking into account the primary role that local authorities have in responding to the situation of migrants and refugees, particularly local governments in border cities, we have been organizing a series of dialogues with local authorities in partnership with the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF). We believe it essential that local governments provide their perspective and share their experience, lessons learned, good practices and proposals for solutions regarding assistance, protection and socio-economic and cultural integration of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

The OAS is also supporting the Costa Rican government in the crafting of solutions to improve the attention to, and protection, integration and socio-economic inclusion of Nicaraguan migrants and refugees in that Member State’s host communities. The initiative is aimed at providing governmental institutions and officials in that country a roadmap to develop public policies and programs that will contribute towards those efforts.

The OAS is implementing a number of initiatives in Central America through its four-pillar agenda of democracy, human rights, development and security since it is guided by the rationale that any strategy that focuses only on the issue of security to the exclusion of sustainable and economic development initiatives, and the promotion of human rights, will likely prove inadequate and counter-productive.

Acting on the required cross cutting approach, the OAS has moved to strengthen cooperation on a number of security fronts and to foster regional policies and strategies that can effectively address the most pressing threats and challenges in this arena. The Organization has facilitated ongoing dialogues and capacity-building programs to enable the highest law enforcement and public security authorities of this sub-region to identify the root causes of crime and violence, build consensus on appropriate remedies, and generate coordinated intervention and prevention efforts to mitigate their impact.

This includes initiatives to improve policing methods by promoting the modernization of police resources, incorporating transparency and accountability, and enhancing the professionalization of security forces. Additionally, a technical assistance program in the Northern Triangle was implemented with the aim of strengthening the capacities of institutions in charge of combating human and migrant trafficking.

In the area of development, the OAS has redoubled its efforts in pursuit of a more prosperous and equitable future in the region. Our development agenda covers wide-ranging areas of work to tackle the challenges related to climate change, poverty, education and youth, and the overall reduction of inequality.

A renewed impetus has been given to the importance of fostering entrepreneurship, competitiveness and innovation as a path to create employment, combat poverty, and promote integral development, among other programs carried out by the OAS in this region. Ensuring that the youth are well equipped to become active and engaged citizens is a priority for our Organization and one of my strongest convictions. We have responded to this need through the Young Americas Business Trust (YABT), which works with the most vulnerable sectors of the population, including young migrants, indigenous people, women, residents of rural communities, and other vulnerable groups. The Trust promotes youth participation in economic activity through the creation of new businesses, and has made it possible for thousands of young people to receive training in entrepreneurship and business development.

Given the cross-cutting nature of the migration phenomenon, a collective effort was made by the OAS General Secretariat to design an Integrated Program that will contribute to mitigating the root cause, triggers and effects of irregular migration in the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America. The program also seeks to strengthen the institutional capacity of these countries, bringing together areas of expertise of the OAS, so that they may comprehensively address the challenges of irregular migration. The Integrated Program incorporates such components as:

• Informing the decision making process so as to develop migratory policies which address the root causes of irregular migration through the exchange of best practices, and the development of tools to guide budget related decision making;
• Raising awareness of legislators to the root causes of irregular migration and offers of technical assistance to adjust or adapt laws and regulations;
• Improving access of returnees to national identity documents;
• Implementation of targeted economic development projects at the community level for groups in situation of vulnerability such as women, youth, indigenous and afro descendants.

It bears repeating that the problems driving migrants and asylum seekers from Central America are complex, and that it is in this context that we recognize the reality that migrants feel that they have had no choice but to flee their homelands as a result of violence, insecurity, extortion, gang recruitment, sexual and gender-based violence, poverty, natural disasters, or because of persecution, human and political rights violations and socioeconomic crises. It behooves us to consider the fact that migrants would not otherwise opt to leave their homes for harsh and untold uncertainties in another land, particularly when that land is often very hostile to migrants. The migratory flows of citizens from this region will continue as long as there is the need to seek out better opportunities, often in life-saving quests.

Even as we recognize the sovereignty of a nation in passing laws to confront this problem, we are called upon, in like measure, to consider the fundamental principle that all human beings should be able to live free from fear. Each nation has the right to regulate immigration within its borders, but within the Americas, we are called upon as a hemisphere to guarantee the protection of human rights, in adherence to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The OAS has repeatedly reaffirmed that “all migrants regardless of their immigration status, should be accorded the full protection of human rights and the full observance of laws applicable to them.”

Societies have long benefited from the contributions of immigrants. Through their labor, contribution to all aspects of social activities, and their purchasing power, immigrants are central to invigorating economies and are key to stimulating entrepreneurship in the Americas. The crisis of migrants and refugees represents an unprecedented challenge in the region for the Member States of the OAS and the rest of the international community. Despite the difficulties inherent in the unwieldy statistics, migration also creates an immense opportunity to integrate millions who are willing to work, study, and positively impact the countries that receive them.

We must commit to a whole-of-society approach to address the problem through an encompassing approach that combines border security, justice and humanity. As students, you have an important voice, and the opportunity is ripe to be part of the conversation. I urge you to take responsive action, become more informed and more involved with this cause. Your civic action as young leaders projects a robust engagement in participatory democracy, and it is never too early to strive for a broad understanding and a say on matters which impact us all as citizens of this hemisphere such as immigration, in the context of human rights, democracy, development, and security. Participate with groups that help immigrant communities, donate to humanitarian efforts, inform yourself and your community, and importantly…speak up.

Together, following the rich tradition of cooperation and solidarity, we all have a role to play in finding better ways to protect the displaced populations in Central America and the rest of the hemisphere. The OAS is at the vanguard in addressing the issue of migration, and in ensuring that the rights of migrants and all citizens of the Americas are guaranteed. We owe it to them, and to ourselves to turn these challenges into opportunities for a brighter hemisphere in which we all stand to share the rewards.

Thank you