Detention has been widely used throughout North America as an immigration control tool, often in misguided attempts to deter future migratory movements. But in more southern parts of the continent, the use of immigration detention has traditionally been sporadic, and in many cases used only as a last resort. This week, human rights organizations across the region expressed serious concern regarding the multiple border closures that have taken place in Central and South America as part of government actions directed primarily at Cuban migrants looking to reach the United States, where current national legislation provides them a pathway to residency. These border closures have given way to an unprecedented increased use of detention and deportation in various countries.
Ecuador, which serves as an entry point for many Cubans, is the most recent country to execute such concerning policy, with the detention of more than 149 Cubans on July 6, 2016. Refugees and other persons with possible international protection needs were among those detained, many who have already been deported without due process. Sadly, Ecuador is just one among a handful of countries that have taken part in this chain reaction of border closures. Since late 2015, similar situations of detention and deportation in violation of regional and international human rights standards have taken place in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.
As such, IDC members and partners have joined the call to States to fulfill their obligations to respect the rights of all persons within their territory, and:
“Strengthen safe border and transit points by taking steps to ensure timely identification of asylum seekers and others in need of international protection, guarantee the right to personal liberty, and respect the principle of non-refoulement…” – Statement by the Regional Working Group for the Brazil Plan of Action (original in Spanish)
Since November 2015, Nicaragua closed its southern border and sent military officers who used tear gas and physical force to prevent Cuban migrants with ‘transit visas’ from Costa Rica from entering Nicaraguan territory. One month later, Costa Rica announced that it would close its borders, suspend all transit visas and immediately deport Cubans. In turn, Panama blocked Cubans from re-entering from Costa Rica; and as a result, more than 2 million people remained stranded in Costa Rica and more than 4 million in Panama.
In an attempt to address this new problem, the two countries opened new migrant ‘centers’ and ‘shelters’, some of which, worryingly, continue to operate as closed-door facilities. In Costa Rica, one center in Buenos Aires was opened specifically for women and children, and another in Río Claro for men, mostly from African countries. Both centers are closed and function as places of detention. In Panama, centers were opened in Los Planes, Gualaca district, Chiriquí and Puerto Obaldía, some of which are used to detain people before they are deported.
Further complicating the situation, in May 2016, Panama closed its border with Colombia; and Colombia increased use of detention and deportation, returning some people to their country of origin and others to the last country from which them came.
As evidenced by media reports and statements made by these same countries’ national human rights institutions, far from deter migration from Cuba, these policies have instead contributed to a series of human rights violations and situations where millions of people are stranded between borders, including children and families. Those affected are not only Cuban migrants, but also people from Haiti and countries in Africa.
What’s more, it’s not that States lack the tools to develop and implement alternative approaches. As seen from January to May of 2016, even among problematic border closures and increased use of detention, there was also significant regional cooperation as governments in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico coordinated to support passage to the United States for more than 6,000 Cubans. Such efforts are proof that regional cooperation is possible. In an interview with Reforma in March 2016, IDC applauded this regional cooperation and the implementation of solutions that do not restrict personal liberty or freedom of movement:
“This effort, which is incredible, shows that detention is not the way; that it takes management, the joining of forces in order to finally reach effective solutions” – Elba Coria, IDC
The complexity of migratory movements that include asylum seekers, refugees, and trafficking victims, among others, makes regional cooperation and coordination all the more urgent. It is absolutely necessary that we develop policies that are fundamentally different to those based on border closures and restriction. It’s been proven in the Americas region and all over the world and that the use of detention and deportation as the sole or first response to irregular migration is never the best option.
The governments of the Americas region have made specific commitments to ensure full protection of migrants’ rights, including commitments to implement alternatives to detention, set out in the borders plan of the Brazil Plan of Action (December 2014). It’s high time States explore these alternatives and fulfill their commitments.