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‘I was forced to leave’: Central American caravan enters Mexico | News

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Tecun Uman, Guatemala – Zulma Rodriguez sat in the shade of a tree outside the Guatemalan immigration office, waiting on some paperwork before she can cross the bridge into Mexico with her kids. They are the reason she fled El Salvador.

“I was forced to leave,” she told Al Jazeera, surrounded by young children, including her six-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

Rodriguez’s son was in fifth grade in Ilopango, just a few miles east of the capital, San Salvador. Rodriguez worked in a textile factory to support her kids, but could not protect them at school.

Gang members recruit children to sell drugs to their peers, Rodriguez said. Cannabis and cocaine are circulating even in grade school, she added.

“And amphetamines,” her son chimed in.

Rodriguez’s son loves school and was getting good grades, but gang members were pressuring him to join. Saying no is only an option for so long.

“If you refuse [to join], they say they will kill you,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez is one of the several thousand Central Americans now crossing into Mexico following the departure earlier this week of migrant and refugee caravans from Honduras and El Salvador.

In dispersed groups large and small, they quickly crossed Guatemala with a mix of bus rides, walking and hitchhiking. The vast majority of people participating in the current collective Central American exodus are Honduran, but there are many Salvadorans, and some Guatemalans and Nicaraguans have joined along the way.

Humanitarian visas

Mexico is offering humanitarian visas to this wave of Central Americans fleeing violence, poverty, unemployment and persecution in their respective countries. Valid for one year with a possibility of renewal, the visas will allow people to live, work and travel anywhere in Mexico. 

As of Thursday night, 969 Central Americans had registered with Mexican immigration officials, who say the visa processing period will only take up to five days. Hundreds more people were already lined up on the bridge Friday morning, receiving temporary wristbands for identification during processing, and waiting as the lines slowly advanced towards the Mexican immigration office.

The temporary policy for this wave of Central American migrants and refugees of the administration of Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office last month, stands in stark contrast with that of his predecessor.

Thousands of Central Americans fled in a mass exodus in October and November, when more than 10,000 migrants and refugees made it into Mexico despite a much more closed door policy. Some 3,000 registered with officials for refugee status consideration, but the majority entered without processing following tense stand-offs at the border, where on one occasion Mexican federal police deployed tear gas and anti-barrier projectiles, killing one Honduran.





A group of asylum seekers follow a Mexican immigration official [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

More than 6,000 Central Americans made it to Tijuana at the US border late last year, and some remain, while others have returned home or crossed into the US to request asylum both at and between official points of entry.

Rodriguez left El Salvador as part of last year’s exodus, but she did not make it up to Mexico. Early into the journey, she and her kids met a Honduran mother also travelling with young children and they decided to stay in Guatemala as a group and try to start a life there, but soon ran into difficulties.

“In Guatemala we could not register our kids for school,” Rodriguez said.

The school year had already begun and they were told there was no more room. Rodriguez and her new Honduran friend said they faced discrimination and lower pay. They found some work handing out flyers for a private medical laboratory, but were never paid, so they had to head back home. 

Mid-January caravans were planned in advance from both El Salvador and Honduras, and the two mothers both fled their home countries once again, with plans to meet up in Guatemala and continue north into Mexico.

For now, the families have no plans to go to the US. They hope to find work in Mexico and enroll their kids in school.

“My goal is for my children to study. That is my top priority as a mother,” Rodriguez said.

For years, Mexico has cooperated with the US in stopping the northbound advance of migrants and refugees. Mexico deports more Central Americans than the US. Between that long-standing practice and Mexico’s crackdown on last year’s caravans at the border, Central Americans have reason to be wary.

The uncertainty and doubts were palpable on Thursday evening at an impromptu assembly in the Tecun Uman central park. Mexican and Guatemalan officials were explaining the situation and the details of the humanitarian visa process, but many people were not buying it.

Some Central Americans were convinced it was a trap, even as others returned with wristbands after signing up for the visa process. Most people remained uncertain, discussing their options in small groups scattered around the park, where nearly everyone spent the night.

Before dawn Friday, hundreds of migrants and refugees decided to not wait around. They crossed the bridge without processing and entered Mexico on foot, walking up to Tapachula, where they began to arrive Friday afternoon. Police escorted the group and are expected to stop their advance unless they are processed for entry.

‘The crisis is greater than ever’

Cesar Medina has no reason to mistrust the Mexican government’s promises of humanitarian visas. The 21-year-old has been through the process before, when he took part early last year in a Honduran migrant and refugee caravan whose participants received the visas. 

“I was working in Tijuana. I had my Mexican papers,” he told Al Jazeera.

Late last year, though, one of Medina’s relatives was dying, and he had to return home to Roatan, an island off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. But due to violence and a lack of employment opportunities, Medina fled the country again this week. 

“The crisis is greater than ever,” he said.

Douglas Iritano left for similar reasons, but home for Iritano is in Mixco, just west of Guatemala City. The 43-year-old worked for years painting houses, but gang violence and corruption in Guatemala pushed him to leave. He tried to leave years ago, but was sent back.

“I’m returning to Mexico to take advantage of the humanitarian visa that will allow us to travel throughout Mexico,” he told Al Jazeera, waiting in line to begin the visa application process while a nearby Mexican immigration official hands out sandwiches.





A group of men listen to instructions from a Mexican immigration official as they begin the process of obtaining their humanitarian visas [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

US congresswoman Norma Torres of California has pointed out that the administration of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has done little to resolve the causes of migration.

“Guatemala faces many pressing challenges including gang violence, drug trafficking, and nutrition. The current government has done nothing to fix these problems because they have been so focused on protecting themselves and their cronies from criminal prosecution,” Representative Torres said in a statement to Al Jazeera in late December.

“Sadly, many Guatemalans are giving up hope that conditions will ever improve,” Torres said. 

Iritano agreed. “All our presidents are thieves,” Iritano said. “Added to that, there are no opportunities for the youth, so they become criminals and gang members. It is better for us to leave in order to support our families.”

Iritano sees migrating as the means of supporting his mother, wife, children, and grandchildren. He migrated to the United States, but was deported in 2006. Following the recent caravans, he attempted to head north again, but was deported.

“The previous president, Enrique Pena Nieto, treated migrants like animals. We are humans,” he said. “Thank god that the new President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is concerned for migrants.”

Iritano arrived to apply for the humanitarian visa Friday morning. But the long wait does not bother him, even if he has to sleep outside and only eat once a day for a while.

“It is worth it,” he said. “I can travel throughout Mexico without having to hide from immigration officials.”

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Canadian report reveals spike in food-related litter during pandemic

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TORONTO — Restaurants’ inability to offer their usual dine-in service during much of 2020 may explain why an unusually high amount of food-related litter was found across the country, a new report says.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC) is an annual program in which volunteers are encouraged to clean up green spaces and other natural areas.

Last year, single-use food and beverage containers made up 26.6 per cent of waste collected through the program – nearly twice as high a percentage as in 2019, before the pandemic.

“We suspect the change may be one of the many implications of COVID-19, including more people ordering restaurant takeaway and consuming more individually packaged foods,” GCSC spokesperson Julia Wakeling said in a press release.

While food- and beverage-related litter accounted for a greater percentage of waste uncovered by GCSC than in the past, it wasn’t the single largest category of items picked up through the program last year.

That dubious honour goes to cigarette butts and other smoking-related paraphernalia, which comprised nearly 29 per cent of all items collected. There were more than 83,000 cigarette butts among the 42,000 kilograms of waste found and clean up last year.

So-called “tiny trash” – little pieces of plastic and foam – also accounted for a sizeable share of the waste, making up 26.8 per cent of the total haul.

In addition to smoking-related items and tiny trash, the main pieces of litter removed by GCSC volunteers last year included nearly 22,000 food wrappers, more than 17,500 pieces of paper, more than 13,000 bottle caps and more than 10,000 beverage cans.

Discarded face masks and other forms of personal protective equipment were also detected and cleaned up, although not tallied in their own category.  PPE waste has been repeatedly cited as a concern by environmental advocates during the pandemic; a robin in Chilliwack, B.C. is the earliest known example of an animal that died due to coronavirus-related litter.

The GCSC is an annual program organized by Ocean Wise and the World Wildlife Fund Canada. Its operations were disrupted by the pandemic as well; only 15,000 volunteers took part in the program last year, versus 85,000 in 2019, due to delays and public health restrictions making large group clean-ups impossible.

Still, there was GCSC participation from every province and the Northwest Territories in 2020. Nearly half of the volunteers who took part were based in B.C., where the program began in 1994.

Data from past GCSC reports was used as part of the research backing Canada’s ban on certain single-use plastic items, which is scheduled to take effect by the end of 2021.

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Canada: Significant Changes To Canada’s Federal Environmental Protection Regime Proposed

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On April 13, 2021, the government of Canada proposed significant changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (“CEPA”)1 through the introduction of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act (the “Amendments“).2

With these Amendments, the government hopes to modernize Canada’s environmental regime which has not undergone significant change in over 20 years. CEPA is the primary statute through which the federal government regulates and protects the environment. CEPA and its accompanying regulations regulate among other things the treatment and disposal of chemicals and hazardous waste, vehicle and engine emissions, equipment and other sources of pollution, and the prevention and impact of environmental emergencies such as oil and chemical spills.

This bulletin provides an overview of the major changes to CEPA that have been proposed.

The Right to a Healthy Environment and Certain Soft Rights

Significantly, the Preamble under the Amendments will officially recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. Section 2 of CEPA will require the government to protect that right when making decisions relating to the environment.3

The Amendments set out specific obligations the government must undertake to safeguard this right, including developing an implementation framework to set out how this right will be considered in the administration of CEPA as well as conducting research, studies and monitoring activities to support this goal.

In addition, the Preamble will recognize some additional considerations, including confirming the government’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as well as recognizing the importance of considering vulnerable persons, reducing or replacing the use of animal testing, and the right of Canadians to have access to information on product labels.

Project Impact Assessment

With respect to risk assessments under CEPA, under the new provisions the federal government must consider impacts on vulnerable populations and possible cumulative effects of the proposed conduct. Vulnerable populations will include groups of people with elevated biological susceptibility, such as children, and groups with elevated exposure risks, such an indigenous communities. Consideration of cumulative effects of proposed conduct takes a holistic approach to substance management by considering the compounding risks of exposure to various chemicals during daily life rather than looking at substances on their own.

Chemicals Management

The federal government has identified the management of chemicals as a key target area under the new CEPA.

The Amendments thus propose to overhaul this regime in order to better protect Canadians from the evolving risks of harmful chemicals and pollution. To accomplish this, the government has proposed wide ranging changes relating to risk assessment, public accountability, management of toxic substances and new substances, which are discussed in turn below.

Risk Assessment

The government must consult, develop and publish a Plan of Chemicals Management Priorities which will set out an integrated plan for the risk assessment of various chemical substances currently being used in Canada. The Plan will establish priorities for the management of substances, taking into account a number of factors including among others the views of stakeholders and partners, public comments, the effects on vulnerable populations, the toxicity of the substance, the ability to disrupt biological reproduction or endocrine systems, and whether there are safer and more sustainable alternatives.4 The government will also be empowered to make geographically targeted regulations to address pollution “hot spots”.

Additionally, the Amendments will establish a mechanism through which any person can submit a request to the Minister to assess a substance to determine its toxicity and risk to the environment. The Minister must provide a response within 90 days, indicating whether they intend to assess the substances and their reasons for their decision.

Public Accountability Framework

The Amendments intend to increase transparency and public participation in risk assessments by the government for the categorization and management of potentially toxic chemicals. Currently, CEPA contains a public accountability framework under section 77 and provides time limits for the government to assess substances under sections 91 and 92. However, these provisions only apply to certain risk assessments being conducted by the government such as substances placed on the Domestic Substances List that in the opinion of the Minister present the greatest potential for exposure to Canadians or are persistent or bio-accumulative. The proposed Amendments plan to amend section 77 to expand these transparency and accountability measures to all substance risk assessments for toxic or capable of being toxic substances, with the exception of assessments for new substances.5

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Scientists, Homalco First Nation team up to probe massive B.C. landslide — and its impact on salmon

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When the side of a B.C. mountain gave way on Nov. 28, 2020, crashing into a glacier fed lake and creating a 100-metre high tsunami, no one was around to see the destruction or hear the sound of rocks and trees tearing through the valley below. 

But scientists say the force, which was picked up by seismographs across North America, was the equivalent of a 4.9-magnitude earthquake. 

Fortunately, no one was in the slide’s path, but experts believe that a melting glacier likely contributed by making the slope less stable — and climate change means it is a growing risk. 

As more of Canada’s glaciers recede, scientists say there is great interest in finding out what exactly triggered this slide, and how the rocks and sediment have impacted the salmon population of nearby Elliot Creek and Southgate River. 

The mountain, which is located about 220 km north west of Vancouver, is on the traditional territory of the Homalco First Nation. 

It’s an area of remote wilderness, only accessible by air or by boating 80 km up Bute Inlet.

When the slide hit last year, more than 18 million cubic meters of rock barrelled down the slope hitting the lake within 30 seconds. 

“That is the equivalent of all of the cars in Canada coming down the hill at once,” said Marten Geertsema, a geomorphologist who works with the B.C. government studying landslides. 

He is one of several scientists, along with members from the Homalco First Nation, who have been studying the landslide and its cascading environmental impact on the watershed and salmon habitat. 

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