From Central America to Syria: the Conspiracy against Refugees

Migrants from Central America heading in a caravan to the US. (Photo: via Al Jazeera)

By Ramzy Baroud

Watching the ongoing debate between liberal and right-wing pundits on US mainstream media, one rarely gets the impression that Washington is responsible for the unfolding chaotic situation in Central America. In fact, no other country is as accountable as the United States for the ongoing chaos and resulting refugee crisis. So why, despite the seemingly substantial ideological and political differences between right-wing Fox News and liberal CNN, are both media outlets working hard to safeguard their country’s dirty little secret?

In recent years, state and gang violence — coupled with extreme poverty — have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, among other countries in Central and South America. The mainstream media in the US, however, is rarely interested in the root cause of that reality.

Fox News, for example, is tirelessly peddling the offensive language used by President Donald Trump, which portrays the refugees as criminals and terrorists who pose a threat to US national security. At a press conference in October, Trump urged a reporter to take his camera into ”the middle” of a caravan of migrants on the treacherous journey through Mexico, to locate ”Middle Eastern” people who have, he alleged, infiltrated the crowd. In Trump’s thinking, “Middle Eastern people” is a synonym for terrorists.

CNN, on the other hand, has labored to counter the growing official and media anti-immigrant sentiments that have plagued the US, a discourse that is constantly prodded and manipulated by Trump and his supporters.

However, few in the liberal media have the courage to probe the story beyond convenient political rivalry. Most persist in their hypocritical and insincere humanitarianism that is divorced from any meaningful political context.

The fact is that the Central American refugee crisis is similar to the plethora of Middle East and Central Asian refugee crises of recent years. Mass migration is almost always the direct outcome of political meddling and military interventions by the West. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya, and Syria, millions of refugees have been forced, by circumstances beyond their control, to seek safety in some other country. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians have thus found themselves in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, while a far smaller number trickled across to Europe; all sought safety from the grinding wars in their own lands.

So-called “populist” political opportunists in Europe are no different from their American counterparts. While the former have seized on the tragedy of the refugees to sow the seeds of fear and hate, Americans have blamed the refugees for their own misery.

Blaming the victim is nothing new. The Iraqis were once blamed for failing to appreciate Western democracy; Libyans for their failed state; Syrians for taking the wrong side in a protracted war; and so on. Yet the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and Syria are all, in varying degrees, outcomes of military interventions, a truth that does not seem to register in the self-absorbed minds of both right-wing and liberal intellectuals in Europe and the US.

The irony is that the hapless refugees, whether those escaping to Europe or to the United States, are perceived to be the aggressors — the invaders, if you like — whereas the reality is that it was the US and its allies which had, in fact, invaded these once stable and sovereign countries.

Trump has often referred to the Central American migrants’ caravan as an “invasion”, a claim which has been parroted by Fox News. The US President, incredibly, injected the possibility of having the refugees shot upon arrival. If Fox News lacked the decency to treat refugees as human beings deserving of sympathy and respect, CNN lacked the courage to expand the discussion beyond Trump’s awful language and inhumane policies.

To expand the parameters of the conversation would expose a policy that was not introduced by Trump, but by Bill Clinton, and applied in earnest by George W Bush and Barack Obama. Media grandstanding aside, Democrats as well as Republicans are responsible for the current refugee crisis.

In 1996, Democratic President Clinton unleashed a war on refugees when he passed two consecutive pieces of legislation: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Millions of people who had escaped US-instigated wars and military coups were deported back to Central and South America. Two million people were deported during the Bush terms, with 2.5 million being deported under Obama. A terrible situation was exacerbated; violence and want flared even more.

To rally his angry and radicalized constituency, Trump waved the migrant card once more, threatening to build a “great wall” and to close “loopholes” in US immigration law. Like his predecessors, he offered little by way of redressing an unjust reality that is fomented constantly by destructive US foreign policy, stretching back decades.

Nevertheless, the refugees kept on coming, mostly from Central America’s Northern Triangle region. Without proper political context, they, too, were duly blamed for their own hardship. Considering the lack of quality coverage by Fox News and CNN, this is hardly surprising. Few Americans know of the sordid history of their country in that region, starting with the CIA-engineered coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954, or the US support of the coup against the democratically-elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009; or of everything else that happened in between.

Indeed, the unhealthy relationship between the US and its southern neighbors goes back to as early as 1904, when President Theodore Roosevelt declared the “right” of his country to hold “international police power” in Latin America. Since then, the entire region has been regarded as Washington’s business.

The free trade agreement (CAFTA-DR) signed between Central American countries and the US has done its own share of damage. The deal “restructured the region’s economy and guaranteed economic dependence on the United States through massive trade imbalances and the influx of American agricultural and industrial goods that weakened domestic industries,” wrote Mark Tseng-Putterman in Medium.

Acknowledging all of this is threatening. If US mainstream pundits accept their country’s destructive role in Central and South America, they will be forced to abandon the role of the victim (as embraced by the right) or the savior (as embraced by the left), which has served them well. The same stifling political and intellectual routine is also witnessed in Europe.

This denial of moral responsibility, though, will only exacerbate the problem, not resolve it. No amount of racism on the part of the right, or crocodile tears from the liberals, will ever rectify this skewed paradigm. This is as true in Central America as it is in the Middle East; there is a conspiracy against refugees.

– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

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