When Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in December, he pitched a US$30-billion aid plan for the Central American countries whose migrants have been flooding Mexico’s southern border: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Mexico’s ambassador to Ottawa has since lobbied Canada to be a “front row” supporter as Mexico finalizes its proposal. “Canada,” Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho said last week, “is critical to this effort.”
Perhaps, the term “critical” is hyperbole. But Canada can and should do more.
The Northern Triangle, as the three countries are collectively known, has for years been beset by an array of ills, from violence to poverty. The countries have among the highest murder rates in the world and are riven by gangs and drug smuggling. Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in 2017 called the violence “unprecedented” outside of a war, and said the government institutions in the region “are incapable of meeting the basic needs of the population.”
The roots go back decades. Guatemala and El Salvador suffered long civil wars in the 1980s; Honduras did not fully escape the conflict, as the United States used it as a staging ground to fight the government in Nicaragua. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act led to a spike in U.S. deportations. Many of those sent back to the Northern Triangle were members of MS-13, a Salvadorian gang formed in Los Angeles.
Against this grim historical backdrop, the arrival of desperate Northern Triangle migrants at the United States’ border with Mexico had been steady at about 500,000 a year, from late 2013 through last summer.
The human tide, fleeing violence and risking their lives on a perilous journey, has surged in recent months and is on pace for a total of about one million arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border by September.
In the latest figures from May, about 133,000 people were apprehended at the border. The number is more than triple the figure from a year ago.
What has also changed is the composition. In the past, the majority of arrivals were solo adults. The proportion of people arriving as families has shot higher. In May, about two-thirds of those apprehended – about 85,000 people – were families. There were also 11,507 unaccompanied children.
This crisis has served as a political cudgel for U.S. President Donald Trump, both during his run for the presidency and through his time in office. His mythic border wall and his widely denounced policy of separating children from their families are his signature actions.
But there was also his threat in March to cut aid to Northern Triangle countries because of the migrants. And, in late May, came his threat of tariffs against Mexico for the same reason.
Canada’s role has been tangential. Mr. Trump’s threats against Mexico have been viewed by Ottawa through the lens of the pending North American trade deal, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, while the surge in Northern Triangle migrants has been seen as a U.S. foreign policy issue.
In 2017, the U.S. Agency for International Development said the United States sent US$556-million in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. That’s about 1 per cent of the U.S. total, and double the amount of aid to the Northern Triangle compared with five years earlier. Mr. Trump’s call to cut such aid is a self-defeating step backward.
Canada, meanwhile, sends little money. None of the three countries has ranked among the top 15 recipients of Canadian foreign aid since 2011, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The pitch from Mexico is an opportunity for Canada to do more. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in late May called the U.S.-Mexico border dispute a “bilateral issue.” That’s technically true, but Mexico has been a valued trade partner for a quarter-century and migration is an issue that affects the entire continent.
The United Nations in May urged Canada to help Mexico resettle Northern Triangle migrants. This would be welcome. At the very least, Canada can contribute more money and resources to help alleviate the terrible conditions that lead people to flee the region in the first place.
In 2015, Canada stepped up to help Syrians. In 2019, Canada should heed Mexico’s call.