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Perry World House hosts conversation on the legal and humanitarian issues surrounding the Central American migrant caravan

November 28, 2018

By Joyee Au Yeung

On November 27, Perry World House hosted a conversation on the legal and humanitarian issues involved in asylum policies. The event, “No Refuge: The Migrant Caravan and International Human Rights Law,” was moderated by Perry World House’s Global Shifts Program Manager, Jocelyn Perry, and the two featured speakers were Fernando Chang-Muy, Penn Law’s Thomas O’Boyle Lecturer in Law, and Stephanie Schwartz, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Perry World House. Chang-Muy focused on his personal experience providing support to Honduran asylum seekers in Mexico as well as the legal side of migrant issues, while Schwartz emphasized the consequences of government actions and the humanitarian side.

Chang-Muy opened by differentiating the terms “refugee” and “asylee,” two words that are often used interchangeably yet represent very different groups of people. Refugees are located outside of the country they are seeking refuge in, while asylees are inside. Chang-Muy went on to explain that once asylees set foot on the land where they seek refuge, they are legally allowed to apply for asylum, which is why governments attempt to dislocate people before they cross borders to avoid responsibility. He described his experience with asylum seekers in Mexico,  explaining that Mexicans are much more supportive compared to Americans, and noting that the Mexican government also provides structured programs to educate asylum seekers on their rights. Chang-Muy also pointed out that most of the people he met were either farmers or “hungry women [and] hungry children,” not the “rough, rough people” and criminals to which U.S. President Donald Trump frequently alludes. He ended his speech by discussing a recent memorandum from the Mexican government wherein they promised humanitarian aid to Hondurans, but intentionally left a grey area concerning providing asylum.

On that note, Schwartz steered the conversation toward government action and how it affects humanitarian norms globally. Schwartz argued that Trump’s brazen rejection of refugees is only a small part of the “broader global trend of erosion of global asylum norms.” She focused on the humanitarian norm of asylum, where once you end up in foreign territory, you can apply for asylum in that country, regardless of the legality of how you arrived there. Schwartz raised the example of Australia, where the government dislocated asylees by sending them to different countries, which forced them to live in terrible conditions and suffer fatal medical neglect. This kind of offshoring may lead to detention of asylees and violations of human rights, she said.

Despite these offshoring policies being implemented globally, Schwartz said that the biggest threat to the humanitarian norm of giving refuge is still President Trump, since he blatantly rejects obligations to aid asylees and even calls them criminals. She also drew attention to his recent actions, including permitting the use of tear gas on asylum-seeking women and children at the Mexican border, which she called a direct violation of the norm and of human rights. Schwartz called Trump’s behavior “extremely troubling,” and argued that “physically using force [on the asylum seekers] at the border when they are legally allowed to apply for asylum” denies the entire spirit of asylum protection. Schwartz ended by asserting that the only way to protect the international human rights of asylees is to reinvigorate the asylum norms and increase protection for the asylees.