Since October, we have seen a lot of media attention on a group of Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans as they travelled out of their native countries en route to the United States. There has been much speculation about the origins of the caravans as U.S., and Central American politicians have questioned who initiated the caravans and the overall intentions of the groups.

Map of Central America
Map of Central America. Courtesy of Cacahuate.

Regardless, no matter which side of the topic you find yourself on, the reality is that these are real people seeking asylum. Real people exposing themselves to the dangers and difficulties of migration as a result of unsafe conditions in their homelands.

One of the main reasons a lot of these Central Americans have fled their countries is because of the rampant gang violence in their neighborhoods. These gangs, bolstered by mass U.S. deportations and civil war aftermaths, are known for abusing women, extorting people for “rent” and cruel acts of violence like murder. Fearing for their safety and wellbeing, members of the caravans see the exodus as an opportunity to escape threats and dangers from the maras  (gangs).

An MS13 gang member showing a gang sign. MS13 is one of several gangs in El Salvador
An MS13 gang member showing a gang sign. MS13 is one of several gangs in El Salvador. Courtesy of Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Another often ignored displacement factor is food insecurity. In many Central American countries, the agricultural industryaccounts for at least one-third of employment, meaning crop failures and low harvest can be detrimental to the wellbeing of this portion of the population. Currently, this has been a problem in the region for several years, as climate change has increased the number of droughts and periods of flooding rains.[1] The consequences have been substantial for crops like maize and coffee. This has led to more than 3 million people struggling to feed themselves.

A maize farmer showing his crop, which has been destroyed due to climate change
A maize farmer showing his crop, which has been destroyed due to climate change. Courtesy of Neil Palmer (CIAT).

With these and other factors (poverty, employment opportunities, etc.) in mind, it is not hard to see why these people would seek asylum in the United States, a country historically denoted as the “land of opportunity”. The hope is that they can continue to make it to the United States-Mexico border and apply for asylum like somesmaller groups that went ahead of the caravans.

One critical factor to consider is the health of those participating in the caravan. Health concerns can be both a motivating factor for fleeing and deeply impacted by the journey itself. Some of the biggest health concerns include the needs of pregnant women and their babies, accessibility to toiletries and bathroom facilities, cuts and sores on feet, access to water, respiratory illnesses, and access to wheelchairs for people with disabilities.

On the journey from these Central American countries through Mexico, the weather conditions are hot and windy in the daytime and cold at night. The heat has taken atollon people as they are sometimes forced to exhaust their water supply. Dust from whipping winds has led to respiratory illnesses and the dramatic weather conditions have given people fevers and colds. In support of the migrants, Mexican health workers have volunteered to provide care. They have treated more than 1,000 migrants for respiratory illnesses, fevers, and have even performed ultrasounds on pregnant women.

Regardless, no matter which side of the topic you find yourself on, the reality is that these are real people seeking asylum.

To ease some of these hardships, there have been efforts to provide buses for the migrants. Some have been trips from one state to the next closest state and some have been bus rides along the western coast of Mexico. These rides have helped alleviate some of the walking for the migrants and protected them from the intense weather conditions, if only for a moment.

Yet, health concerns like access to bathrooms, shelter and accessibilities formigrants with disabilitiesare a pressing matter. At times migrants have had to bathe and relieve themselves in rivers along the way. They have slept on the ground wherever they could pitch a makeshift tent. People have walked on crutches when they have not had access to a wheelchair. These are some of the immediate health concerns the migrants are facing, but there are also important psychological, emotional, and safety concerns such as the dealing with the trauma of abruptly leaving one’s home or the risk of being sexually assaulted.

A river in Oaxaca, Mexico where migrants have had to bathe in and wash their clothes
A river in Oaxaca, Mexico where migrants have had to bathe in and wash their clothes. Courtesy of Alejandro Guzmán Robles.

It is clear that the 3,000 mile journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border has taken a toll on the caravans of migrants. There has been support from different organizations like Border Angels,governmentsand citizens, but more can be, and should be, done to help. The health and safety of the migrants is a public health concern for themselves and the different communities they pass through. The health situation has to be monitored and addressed by organizations capable of intervening.

These are people seeking asylum, and just as they have a right to seek sanctuary, they also have a right to human health.

Resources:

  1. C.M. Fernandes, Erick & Soliman, Ayat & Confalonieri, Roberto & Donatelli, Marcello & Tubiello, Francesco. (2012). Climate Change and Agriculture in Latin America, 2020-2050.

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