This Major Policy Shift Will Save the Lives of Refugee Children in Central America

At a time when immigration has again become a hot-button political topic across the West, President Obama announced new measures last month to help people from Central America escape the daily violence that defines many of their lives. The policy change defies the growing trend of refugee shunning, setting a positive example of how countries can come together to help the world’s most vulnerable.

Although the announcement was overshadowed in the US by the Democratic National Convention, it marks a major policy shift. Many of those fleeing Central America are children trying to escape the endemic violence and forced recruitment by street gangs and drug cartels that dominate many cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. As a result, many argue that they should be treated as refugees fleeing armed conflict rather than as economic migrants, the typical stance the US has taken in recent years for those immigrants coming from the Americas.

Earlier this year, the issue came to a head as Democrats in Congress blasted the Obama Administration approach to Central American migrants. Calling out the forced detention of children, immigration raids and policies aimed at deterrence rather than due process, lawmakers and activists alike called the current approach ineffective and out of line with the administration’s attempt to develop a comprehensive refugee policy to assist those from other continents around the world.

With last month’s announcement, it appears that the administration was listening. The new policies expand the previously created Central America Minors (CAM) program to reunite children with a parent already lawfully in the US and introduces in-country processing of asylum and refugee claims to fast-track refugee resettlement, whether in the US or in a third country.

This last provision is an important development. With all the discussion in Europe and the US over containing refugee movements over the past few years, one important element has been missing: how to protect refugees on their journeys. Instead the primary focus has been on deterrence and immigration enforcement. Doing so ignores the plain reality that in the absence of safer alternatives, desperate people will always be willing to undertake desperate means to violence, whether that means getting into an overcrowded rickety boat or trekking 2,000 miles through Mexico with no guarantee of safety.

By offering in-country processing and an option of a limited stay in Costa Rica for those at imminent risk, potential refugees are now offered a safe alternative that has been missing for far too long.

This is a stark alternative to recent trends. Over the past few years numerous Western countries have adapted their refugee and asylum policies specifically to discourage potential applicants, even if they are eligible, through border closures and controversial seizures of personal property from people who often have only the clothes on their backs. In 2013, Australia went so far as to excise the entire country from its official “migration zone”, thus guaranteeing that any refugees or asylum seekers who made it to Australia would be relegated to offshore detention and refused even the option of settling in Australia when their asylum claims were proven. Several European countries have objected to conducting search and rescue missions on the Mediterranean, claiming that saving drowning migrants encourages others to follow in their dangerous footprints. It is in this political environment that refugees and asylum seekers now have to navigate in the hopes of finding safety and a chance at a future for themselves and their families.

By bucking the trend of deterrence rather than acceptance, the US is setting a strong example of how refugees can be humanely treated even as political headwinds call for shutting down borders. There are of course more pragmatic reasons for the change, including avoiding another crisis on the border as seen in 2014 when tens of thousands of people – including unaccompanied minors – crossed into the US. And the policy changes are still are short of what is likely needed, and do nothing to address the underlying problems in Central America causing this migration flow.

But at a time when refugees are seen as something to be avoided – unless they are competing in the Olympics – and when the international community can’t even agree on a non-legally binding document ahead of the high level UN summit on migration in September, any step in the right direction should be applauded. At the very least, the recent US policy changes and the San Jose Action Statement released by the OAS in early July recognizes that all countries have a role to play in addressing the global refugee crisis.