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Honduras: A Nation of Refugees

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Honduras, brace yourself for what could be your worst public relations nightmare in recent memory. The coup? Peanuts. All that "murder capital" of the world stuff? Cakewalk. The tens of thousands of unaccompanied Honduran child migrants (along with children from El Salvador and Guatemala) who have been detained in Texas and Arizona has put new light on all that unpleasantness having to do with the violence fueled by the growth of drug trafficking and gang activity. It's becoming increasingly clear that the illegal immigration problem (at least the latest edition of it) in the U.S. is directly linked to that violence. That's a PR challenge for Honduras in-and-of-itself.

Seeing the photos of all those kids in detainment facilities, and reading the stories of why they fled their home country makes it extremely difficult for the Honduran government and Honduran businesses to reassure the world that the situation is not as dire as it may appear. It's one thing to massage the crime data, specifically the homicide numbers; you can argue (and reasonably so), for example, that there are only certain areas of Honduras that merit warnings of extreme caution... places not so unlike the upper east side of Detroit. It's another to try and explain away the recent flood of people leaving the country and choosing to walk (and ride) across more than a thousand miles of jungles and deserts, risking life or limb.

Even tougher, how do you explain why so many Honduran parents make the decision to send their children unaccompanied on such a dangerous journey. In a recent article by the Center for Development in Central America (CDCA), the author rhetorically asked a Central American woman, "What situation would you have to be in to make that decision?" Her answer -- "As a mother of two girls, I can only imagine one: where it is more dangerous for them to stay at home." -- should keep President Juan Orlando Hernández and all Honduran business leaders up at night.

However, that's not the scary dream to which I initially referred. The nightmare may begin to take shape the day the United Nations succeeds in its current campaign to have the Central American migrants fleeing to the U.S. designated as "refugees" displaced by armed conflict. According to an article by the Associated Press earlier this week, "Officials with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees say they hope to see movement toward a regional agreement on that status Thursday when migration and interior department representatives from the U.S., Mexico, and Central America meet in Nicaragua. The group will discuss updating a 30-year-old declaration regarding the obligations that nations have to aid refugees."

The AP story continued, "Most of the people widely considered to be refugees by the international community are fleeing more traditional political or ethnic conflicts like those in Syria or the Sudan. Central Americans would be among the first modern migrants considered refugees because they are fleeing violence and extortion at the hands of criminal gangs."

Gaining refugee status would be good news for the migrants, because it would mean they would not automatically be deported to their home countries. Instead, they would receive international protection. In many ways, it would also be good news for Honduras, because it would save its government from having to process, temporarily care for, and try to find jobs for the tens of thousands of deportees. And there would be no risk of deportees being recruited by the drug cartels and organized gangs. That's a huge one.

But such a designation would come at a significant cost to Honduras' image abroad, which could make it even more difficult to attract visitors and private investment -- both critical to the country's development. Many might shrug and argue that it doesn't really matter, because Honduras' image could not get any worse... I'm not so sure about that.