2020 Michael Baptista Lecture: A brutal glimpse of migrant reality
by Luis Horacio Nájera
For those who missed the opportunity to attend the 2020 Michael Baptista Lecture and are wondering how it was, the best words to describe the event are: brutally honest.
For those gathered at the Toronto Reference Library, the Baptista Lecture offered a sombre reminder of the dire situation of thousands of Central American citizens displaced from their ancestral lands, forced to travel thousands of kilometres across Mexico, hounded by uncertainties, segregation and mistreatments. Furthermore, for those who tried to reach Canada for safety, available options for receiving refugee status are scarce and diminishing, regardless of what political colour is leading the federal government.
This journey began in Central America with Dr. Gio B’atz’ sharing his research on how neoliberalism and its extractive policies, reinforced by both local oligarchs and corrupt politicians have systematically -and frequently violently- contributed to the displacement of indigenous communities in Guatemala. After a tortuous journey across Mexico, Central American migrants who reach the Northern border are re-victimized while trapped in a bottleneck created by both the US and Mexican governments and operated de facto by drug cartels, as human rights activist Adalberto Ramos explained.
Ramos, coordinator of the “Centro de Recursos para Migrantes,” a shelter located at the border of Agua Prieta Sonora, exposed the additional suffering of thousands of families and individuals fleeing Central America. After changes in procedures implemented in the asylum process by the Trump administration, refugee claimants are forced to wait -frequently for months- in Mexico for a preliminary hearing, thus overwhelming the assistance and the infrastructure administered by non-government organizations. As the Mexican government agreed to keep refugee claimants on its side of the border, drug cartels seized the opportunity by kidnapping or extorting immigrants, while brave volunteers play a sinister “cat and mouse” game to protect them from criminal groups once they arrive in town.
As dire as the situation is on the Southern side of the border, just a few meters north the crisis affecting immigration and refugees continues and even expands into what activist and academic Dr. Elizabeth Oglesby described as: “the complex ecologies of care in Southern Arizona.” For those able to cross to the United States, Oglesby explained, the risk of being intercepted and their families separated by the Border Patrol has increased substantially since 2008. Moreover, once released from detention centres, refugee claimants have to “compete” for assistance from an already saturated network that is receiving new waves of Mexican citizens fleeing from drugrelated violence.
Francisco Rico, from the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto, concluded the event by raising awareness of the systematic reduction, by past and present federal administrations, of programs aimed to resettle families/individuals from dangerous countries such as those in the Central American region.
For those who missed the opportunity to attend the 2020 Michael Baptista Lecture, and wonder what the final message was, the best word to summarize the event is compassion.