San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

International Organization for Migration meeting encourages more humane treatment of vulnerable migrants

With 110 reports of human trafficking in Central America during the last five years, migration in the isthmus has become increasingly dangerous. Representatives from migration organizations across Central America met in San José this week to discuss ways to protect the most vulnerable migrants moving through the region.

Hosted by the San José regional office of the International Organization for Migration, the meeting brought together experts from Central America to establish regional guidelines for the development and implementation of policies to identify and assist migrants in need, regardless of their legal status.

Broadly defined, vulnerable migrants are children and adults whose human rights are at a greater risk of violation than the general population due to social, economic, political or personal circumstances.

A document from the event listed pregnant women, children and women who are the victims of sexual exploitation or forced labor, and human trafficking victims as some of the most vulnerable.

Ana Hidalgo, coordinator for the IOM’s Unit against Trafficking and the Protection of Vulnerable Migrants, told The Tico Times that greater emphasis should be placed on migrants’ human rights by border control agents and local law enforcement.

“There is a false dichotomy that people who work in security cannot protect” human rights, she said.

The guidelines discussed this week aim to help law enforcement identify migrants and make sure they receive the attention and resources they need to ensure their safety and well-being.

Part of the challenge involves retraining law enforcement and border control agents to see their jobs in a new light.

But for now, traditional definitions prevail: “There still has not been a paradigm shift when it comes to border control,” Hidalgo said, noting that these new flows of people often take place in secret.

Countries represented at the meeting participate in the Central American Commission of Migration Directors, or OCAM, which includes Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua.

Hidalgo noted that political tensions between the region’s neighbors complicate the potential for improved cross-border cooperation when it comes to vulnerable migrants, regardless of their country of origin.

One example is the tense relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Tensions have run high for years between the two neighbors after several border disputes, most recently involving Isla Calero, a wetland in the northeastern corner of Costa Rica, and an accusation from Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo that Nicaragua had been offering oil concessions in Tico waters. 

Migration flows between the two countries play an important role in both economies in the form of remittances in Nicaragua and cheap labor in Costa Rica. According to a report released Wednesday by the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, 9.8 percent of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product in 2011 came from remittances, most of which originate in Costa Rica and the United States.

“That’s the challenge,” Hidalgo observed, reflecting on overcoming political differences between countries. “We hope to slowly broaden the perspective.”

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