I Met the Caravan and Here’s the Real Situation.

In the past two weeks thousands of refugees from Central America arrived in Tijuana. These people, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala fled from violence, corruption, and poverty. While the cities of Northern Mexico are no stranger to caravans of asylum seekers, there has never been this big of a crisis. An estimated 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers entered Tijuana at the time of my arrival into the city on November 21st, 2018. When I heard about the protests and violence against the asylum seekers and refugees, I realized I had to do something.

I had done some research and got in contact with the organizations that are aiding the relief effort. I had learned about the camp locations of the Caravan that are split in to three different areas of Tijuana. Three days after the main protests against the refugees, an EMT and I had loaded a car full of fundraised food, medical supplies, feminine products, baby products, water, and 13 big bags of clothes and shoes. Before we left, we debriefed how to be the most of use to the refugees and then started the drive from Los Angeles to Tijuana.

Entering Tijuana from San Diego from the I-5 San Ysidro crossing

When we arrived in Mexico, we went to the organization “Enclave Caracol” to discuss the distribution of materials and overall aid. Many people, (all refugees) offered their help in carrying the supplies to the center. When we arrived at the organization in La Zona Norte, we realized the gravity of the situation. The encampments are growing everyday with new people entering Tijuana without food, water, and are medically untreated. The amount of refugees and asylum seekers are far greater than the amount of aid possible to give. We gave Enclave Caracol a couple bags of clothes to distribute at a later time, and headed together with the organization to the main refugee camp in the sports center “Unidad Deportiva Benito Juárez.”

In order to get into to the official camp you must pass through different checkpoints of the Mexican Federal Police. When passing the checkpoints, we were wearily eyed by the Federal Police. Once past these checkpoints, the refugee camp is sealed off by governmental aid workers accepting or denying people into the camp. Outside of the camp there is a giant sign that says in Spanish “Thank you Mexico!” written by the refugees from Honduras. Many refugees that were not yet accepted into the main encampment were offering me their help in carrying the supplies to the main encampment. My guess is that they thought by offering to help, it would be a faster ticket into the encampment. When we arrived to the last checkpoint to enter the Benito Juárez center, we were originally denied entry until a member of Enclave Caracol convinced them otherwise. Enclave Caracol was there to set up sound equipment, while the EMT and I were there to distribute supplies to temporarily feed them and provide them with supplies to take care of themselves. The supplies were things such as first aid kits, Neosporin, Advil, wet wipes, mouthwash, diapers, hand sanitizers, and support wraps for ankles.

Seeing the encampment was heartbreaking. The quality of care in the encampment is low. It appeared there was almost no infrastructure to provide the refugees with anything other than land to sleep on. There were a few doctors on duty, but nothing more than 9 doctors maybe 20 people (mostly security) working in an encampment of hundreds to thousands of people. The encampments are extremely densely populated of hundreds to thousands of people. There is no room or space separating each of the sleeping and living locations. Refugees are sleeping on plastic bag hammocks that are ripped, makeshift tents made of torn blankets and sticks, and people walking around sick, injured, and there’s even people with stained blood on their clothes. The population that I saw were mostly mothers with their children, children without parents, and young men in their 20’s or teenage years. Looking around the vast encampment, it was clear that the small table of medical professionals were not enough for everyone. I wondered how any of these people were being fed without a large group of people being left out.

A member of Enclave Caracol warned us not to pass supplies out directly without organization because people would swarm us, start pushing and get violent. He said to just drop our supplies off and maybe someone else would take care of it. I refused because I came to personally distribute the goods. I was talking with my EMT friend about how we would distribute these goods among the vast group of people, when a boy came up to me staring at the large pile of food that I brought. I looked at him and asked in Spanish “Do you want some food?” He nodded in excitement, and I handed him a chicken salad. After that instant we were surrounded by refugees asking for supplies — but instead of being disorderly and violent, each person only took one item so that everyone could benefit. People were tapping me on the back asking if I had things like toothpaste, Neosporin, and Advil, which I thankfully did. I will never forget the feeling of so many hands pressing on my back and hearing the words “Aqui por favor (Here, Please)”.

People were so excited that someone came into the encampment with supplies. Mothers were crying of happiness when they received diapers and baby wipes. People were overjoyed when I handed them something as simple as mouthwash. After the supplies ran out, some were disappointed that there wasn’t more for those that didn’t receive anything, but they stuck around, asking me about my life in the United States. We chatted, laughed, and enjoyed each others company. I had forgotten that we still hadn’t distributed at least 6 more bags clothes we brought, so we went back to the car.

When we returned, the checkpoints were much easier to cross. The Federal Police were familiar with our faces and were not eyeing us down like they were the first time. But before making it passed the final checkpoint into the encampment, refugees not yet accepted into the center were asking us if we had pants. So, we started to give out pants, sweatshirts, scarves, bags, and hats. We emptied all the bags of clothes before we could make it back to the officially accepted refugees. When we ran out of all the supplies, I got to talk to people longer and have more conversations. We talked about their previous lives in their home countries, hobbies, and smiled at the small and big language miscommunications we had. At the end of the conversations we said “Buenos noches (Goodnight)”, and I wished people the best of luck in their asylum process.

I saw that these people were everything opposite to what some warned me about. These were not the dangerous and illiterate people that you hear many say they are. These people owned businesses, had families, worked, studied, danced, all in Honduras, but had no option other than to flee everything due to violence. They were grateful for the limited services that were being given and happy to be in Tijuana even under these harsh conditions. They were resilient, intelligent, and the strongest people I have ever met.

After conversing a while, we gave the organizer of Enclave Caracol a ride back to their headquarters 5 minutes away. When we arrived, we found a refugee who was shot in the leg asking for help. My EMT friend took charge and asked me to help. We brought the man upstairs to their make-shift medical office. The man had blood all over his clothes, legs, and hands, but was in good spirits. We put on gloves and my friend walked me through the steps to take care of his wound. Now, I have no medical experience, let alone treating something as serious a gunshot wound, but my friend needed somebody to help him and trusted me the most with his instructions. My friend was asking the staff at Enclave Caracol about their medical supplies, but they didn’t know much about what they had. At that moment we realized that while they had a good deal of medical supplies, they didn’t have a professional staff to use them. Sites like these depend heavily on medical professionals, but they are in short supply. If my friend hadn’t been there, this man’s wound wouldn’t have been treated.

After we were done, my friend taught some of the workers how to treat specific wounds and use antibiotics while I interviewed Chris, one of Enclave Caracol’s organizers. He wished to omit his last name. He told me Enclave Caracol did not start out working with refugees. When it started 7 years ago, its initial mission was to collect food that was going to be wasted and to serve it to people in need. After years being operated out of a home, it turned into a bigger organization which included a hostel and community kitchen. Over time they decided to go in a more political direction. While they still serve food about four days a week, they also organize workshops, art spaces, and hold press conferences.

“But what really changed things is when the caravan came. Actually, quite a few caravans had come here before, but it just was not such big of a deal. A group of 50–100 would come here, they would have a press conference here in the building, walk over to the border, they’d turn in, they’d go in, go through the asylum process and that would be it.” — Chris (Enclave Caracol)

In today’s times these caravans are garnering massive media attention with ever greater numbers of asylum seekers attempting to cross the US-Mexico border due to the raging violence in Central America, mostly Honduras. In response, Donald Trump has attempted to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to gain a legal status within the United States. A law which was recently blocked by a federal judge, made it illegal for asylum seekers to request asylum outside of a port of entry. The judgement declaring that this law violated international agreements the United States signed.

“I think in general [the caravan] has been exercise for all the different groups that provide support to migrants in connecting and working together which is something that we haven’t done before. We’ve traditionally focused on little pockets of different communities, but there hasn’t really previously been so many things that would necessitate everyone to work together, but this kind of crisis is exactly what does that. We started working more and more with the lawyers that are providing free legal services to the asylum seekers….. since the last caravan we kept talking and they decided to open permeant offices here on the roof, so for the last 4 or 5 months we’ve been a lot more legal based”

“I think largely whats lacking is an understanding of what asylum is and what the history of migration has looked like for refugees and asylum seekers internationally, what the international laws look like, and how the United States has interacted with the international laws that have been established…. What is not being talked about enough is how Trump’s new asylum laws are breaking international law by denying asylum to people entering a port of entry… The way things are right now we [The United States] have been breaking international law for a while and its greatly effecting people…. there’s these constant attempts to destroy whats already been in place. The second thing [lacking] is an authentic connection to the border, to migrant populations, or to an understanding of the complex situations that can bring people to leave, to migrate away from everything they know on a very dangerous road knowing that it’s dangerous and it’s really important to be able to empathize and to recognize that these people are in a very vulnerable situation” — Chris (Enclave Caracol)

Chris was right about everything. The organizations communicating with each other to provide services in a more broad way is a good thing. It is important to stretch the amount of supplies everyone has to give aid. On top of that, in order to be of more use, we as Americans need to be more aware of the laws regarding asylum in the United States. We need to put more pressure on our representatives to help the refugees and asylum seekers. When people are in vulnerable situations fleeing violence, it is up to the people how their transition will turn out.

What people need the most in the short term is shelter, food, water, and legal advice. In the long term, what people need are opportunities for economic prosperity and access to services for longterm treatment. The only way that this is possible, is through people volunteering, offering whatever useful skills they have, and donations to keep these people alive and prosperous. The encampments of people are not well protected against infections, sickness, and cleanliness due to the lack of supplies and close quarters of thousands of people. There are not enough people, supplies, or people who know how to use the supplies. This is a crisis and with thousands of people still on the way to Northern Mexico, people need to come together to prepare for these refugees and asylum seekers. If governments, more organizations, and people like you and I do not do something to help, the crisis will only become worse. Aid workers will be over worked with a situation that will be out of hand. People will die in the cold streets due to infections and untreated sickness. Sickness that could have been easily treated such as a flu, diarrhea, and the common cold. When the population of refugees increases and if services are not in place, it will be an overall humanitarian disaster. It is a much better idea to provide people with humanitarian relief then to let people die in the streets of Tijuana waiting to get refugee or asylum status.

The new militarized border entering the United States from Tijuana

On the drive back into the United States, there was an intense amount of high security. Aside from the fact that it took four hours to cross the border, the border was also heavily militarized.The Mexican authorities had giant road blocks ready to seal off the border if needed to prevent hundreds of walkers attempting to enter the United States. A few meters away, The U.S. had new barbed wires set up everywhere with CBP (Customs and Border Protection) in full riot gear. These officers were carrying fully automatic weapons with bags of ammo. Shortly after crossing the border, rain begun to pour down and all I could think about were the refugees trying to sleep in the roofless Benito Juarez center in makeshift tents made of ripped blankets, trash bags, and cardboard. I imagined the smiling, resilient people that I met trying to sleep in the cold. I imagined the mothers wrapping their children in their new sweatshirts and shirts recently donated to them. I thought of the man who was shot in the leg, trying to keep his bandage dry without a place to sleep. I thought of the thousands of people I didn’t meet that night without food or clothes, sleeping without a makeshift tent. All this humanitarian crisis is happening 2 blocks away from San Diego. We as humans must do everything we can to aid the people of the caravans. We as Americans must see our role in solving the problems that exist just outside our borders. We must help the refugees of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. We must.

Intern at UNFPA & L.L.M. in International Law

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