Sending aid is key to solving the Central American migrant crisis

Sending aid is key to solving the Central American migrant crisis
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE has threatened to cut off or substantially reduce United States foreign assistance to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador because their governments are “not able to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally” to the United States.

That policy approach misses the mark. Many Central American migrants are fleeing the violence of kidnapping, gangs, and rape that local authorities have been powerless to stop. But targeted investment in police, courts, prosecutors, and widespread engagement of civil society can make a measurable difference in the lives of the poorest. Central America needs more of that United States investment rather than less.

ADVERTISEMENT

Guatemala is a case in point. When International Justice Mission began collaborating with local officials there over a decade ago on cases of child sexual assault, few such crimes were investigated and even fewer perpetrators were brought to justice. With help from international donors, Guatemala created special sexual assault police and prosecution units, launched reporting centers for women and child victims, and initiated trauma informed courtroom procedures. Over the past five years, arrests for child rape have almost tripled and convictions for the crime have more than doubled compared to the previous period of five years.

The government in Honduras has accomplished comprehensive police reform in the past year, purging more than 5,000 suspect officers from the force. Meanwhile, homicide rates there have dropped 30 percent in three years. El Salvador has one of the highest numbers of homicide in the worlds, but killings this year are down 57 percent from last year.

Notwithstanding these modest positive trends, these countries still have extraordinarily high rates of violence, including domestic abuse of women and children. This in turn drives increases in teen homelessness and gang membership. These factors also contribute substantially to children and adults fleeing their homelands for ours. Doctors Without Borders surveyed Central American refugees in Mexico and found more than 40 percent had a relative killed in the past two years, 31 percent knew someone who was kidnapped, and 17 percent knew someone who disappeared.

Poor communities have been battered by crime for so long that many are past the breaking point. Extortion and kidnapping by gangs are gouging the economy, while fragile justice systems are overwhelmed as reports of violence continue to pour in. According to the Wilson Center, some 95 percent of reported crimes currently go unpunished in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These countries need more assistance, more courtrooms, more judges, more prosecutors, more vetted and trained police, more child welfare authorities, more rape crisis centers, more witness protection, and more community assistance for victims.

These migrants are so desperate that they are willing to leave their own countries to walk more than a thousand miles for safety. These mass caravans are going to be the future of Central America if the justice systems there are not reformed to more effectively protect citizens and restrain and deter predators. The United States has an important role in this work and our leaders must understand that ending aid to Central America will increase refugee flows rather than stop them. When families are safe in their homes and communities they will stay there. It is in the best interest of the United States to help them achieve those goals.

Gary Haugen is the founder of International Justice Mission. He is a former human rights attorney with the Justice Department and United Nations.