Research done by humanitarian organizations in migrant transit zones indicates that the most common and most harmful incidents are the following:
- Murders committed by bands of delinquents who assault and rob migrants of the little money and possessions they carry with them
- Children mistreated and abandoned by ‘coyotes’ (those who are paid to traffic migrants across borders) upon being discovered by the authorities.
- Extortion of migrants by coyotes and other authorities who pressure them for money, or sexual favors in the case of women. Estimates from CEPAL and Sin Fronteras put the number of undocumented woman migrants suffering some kind of sexual aggression at 60%.
- Intimidation of migrants by their captors in the form of threats, humiliation, beatings, and insults.
- Rape and forced prostitution of women by delinquents and coyotes.
- Death of migrants as a result of traffic accidents, including those resulting from riding the cargo train that migrants often use to reach northern Mexico.
- Shipwrecks that occur in the Golf of Tehuantepec, where migrants attempt to cross between Guatemala and Mexico by sea. These are usually the result of rickety boats attempting to carry too much cargo. The majority of victims are usually marked as ‘disappeared,’ as only some bodies are rescued and very few survive.
The social issue that has perhaps had the most impact on the life of Central Americans, particularly in El Salvador, is migration. National economies are highly dependent on the remittances sent back home from family members abroad, and the cultural influence of the United States is visible everywhere, from television, to food products, to clothing. Walking into a classroom of 30 students and asking how many have a family member in the United States, it is not uncommon in some parts of the country to see every hand raised. The impacts of this phenomenon have yet to be fully discovered, but there is no doubt that the social impact on children, adolescents, and families in general will be costly.
The central cause of emigration in El Salvador is the issue of social injustice. The first notable flows of emigrants from El Salvador began in the 1970s and 1980s as the country saw violent political repression which eventually led to a civil war that lasted until 1992. Today, the structural conditions of economic and social injustice that led to war in the first place have now led to levels of emigration that surpass those seen during the war. High levels of unemployment, labor exploitation, deficient solutions to problems of education, health, housing, etc, and the very serious problem of gang violence that plagues the entire population are some of the reasons emigration appears so attractive. Given that Salvadorans began leaving the country around 30 years ago, the social and familial networks that are already in place also facilitate easier entry into the labor market of the destination country.
Seemingly fearless, migrants must counter the obstacles that both Mother Nature and human hands have put in place on their journey to their destination country, most often the United States. Travelling through Guatemala and Mexico, migrants endure any number of hardships and attacks on their most precious human rights: the right to life, to dignity, and to their physical security.
It is clear that the undocumented status of a migrant when moving through countries of transit turns them into easy prey for criminals, given the vulnerability and insecurity of crossing borders that are not their own. Their condition does not allow for them to report the violation of their rights, as it means they will run the risk of being detained and deported. For migrants, deportation represents not only frustrated hopes, but also a return to the reality that obliged them to leave in the first place. Many are even worse off than when they left, as financing the journey often requires the sale or mortgaging of property and goods, or the taking out of loans that must now be repaid.
Collective experiences and testimonies indicate that migratory flows will not slow down, despite the many dangers encountered on the journey. The fundamental issues of social injustice that cause migration in the first place are not being reflected upon, and as long as these conditions remain, migration will continue to produce hardships both for migrants and for the families left behind. The struggle for better opportunities and survival will continue to produce sorrow and anguish for a population which has already been made to endure too much pain. The responsibility is on both sending and receiving countries to evaluate policies that contribute to social injustice, and in the mean time, to treat migrants with the respect that each of us deserve.