Haitian migrants stranded at Costa Rica/Nicaragua border. Photo: UN Migration Agency/Hajer Naili 2016

Hope in Troubling Times

In Upala, Costa Rica, a dozen spirited teens sit in a circle and discuss the reasons why young people in Central America leave their homes in search of a better life. “Safety,” says one, a tall, outgoing boy from Nicaragua. “Access to education,” remarks another, a rather shy but energetic Costa Rican girl. “Economic opportunity,” suggests another.

While their answers differ, they reveal one important commonality – young people migrate because they hope for a more prosperous future. Rather than resign themselves to a bleak reality of harsh work, insecurity, and little chance of success, they dream of a place where they can utilize their individual gifts to thrive and contribute to society.

The discussion is at an IOM workshop on migration topics for youth leaders, an activity held as part of IOM’s Mesoamerica program. The teens are members of Red de Jóvenes sin Fronteras (Network of Youth Without Borders), a group dedicated to assisting the vulnerable in their communities and raising awareness on issues affecting youth. Upala, a small ranchero town situated along the tropical northern border with Nicaragua, has long been an immigration and transit hub in the region. 

While many Americans visit Costa Rica to experience its warm ocean waters, colorful toucans, and lush rainforests, migrants journey to the country for other reasons. Each month, thousands of migrants from Central and South America, and some from as far away as Africa and Southeast Asia, attempt to reach Costa Rica. They intend to either seek refuge in the country or continue onward toward the United States.

Fleeing violence, organized crime and stifling poverty, many of these are unaccompanied children, separated from their families and at great risk of being kidnapped, trafficked, raped or killed en route.

For several years now, there has been an increased trend in the migration of unaccompanied youth. Although this is deeply concerning, at times the public’s response has been even more so. As if the struggles migrant youth face are not difficult enough, around the world they are increasingly regarded with suspicion, animosity, and fear. More and more, they are generalized, stereotyped, discriminated against, stripped of their individual human dignity and marginalized.

I recently graduated from Georgetown University with my Master’s degree in international affairs, where I focused my research on international migration. Throughout my studies and during my time in Costa Rica with IOM, this notable rise in hostility toward minority groups, vulnerable migrants and refugees in particular, has profoundly troubled me. As an American, I worry about what this current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment means for the future of my country.

Like so many Americans, my background is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, a product of the unique “melting pot” so integral to the country’s vibrancy. My heritage is Native American, Spanish, British, Italian, German, and Irish. My European ancestors fled religious persecution as pilgrims on the Mayflower, political unrest and poverty in Italy and Germany, and mass starvation during the Irish Potato Famine.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten – forgotten what our ancestors went through to start a new life in the U.S., forgotten the values that define us as a nation – our inclusivity, our spirit of compassion and generosity, our enduring hope in a brighter tomorrow for ourselves and for our children, our ability to see and recognize that same hope in others.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

As I aspire to empower vulnerable migrants in my work, I hope that we Americans never forget our history, recognize our shared humanity in others, be it our neighbours or Central American youth dreaming of a better life, and most importantly, take action to make the world a safer, more hospitable place.

Rachel Sanchez is an Operations Associate at IOM Washington. She is a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program, where her research focused on the intersection between human rights and security in the context of international migration.